Sunday, November 8, 2009

Confederacy of Dunces, A (Toole, J K)

Rating: 4
Year: 1980
Genre: Satire/Farce/Comedy
Read Again? In a few years

This one's hard to write; it took nearly 2 weeks to read--and it's not that long a book. It doesn't drag, there's plenty of humor along the way, and Toole's writing is easy to get along with. He has a good feel for character, an ear for dialect in early 1960's New Orleans, and a solid grasp of what it takes to spin out various threads in a story, then tie them all up at the end without holding the reader's hand and explaining every single thing.

But I'm having trouble, here. Most of it is that I had my head full of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" audiobook. The rest is that the main character, Ignatius Reilly, is about as unlikable as one human being can be. He's a seriously odd duck. He's fat, with blue and yellow eyes (liver problems?), passes gas freely from both ends, and has a funk about him from various personal habits. He fills notebook after notebook with stuff like this:

  • "With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy." Ignatius was writing in one of his Big Chief tablets. "After a period in which the western world had enjoyed order, tranquility, unity, and oneness with its True God and Trinity, there appeared winds of change which spelled evil days ahead. An ill wind blows no one good. The luminous years of Abelard, Thomas a Becket, and Everyman dimmed into dross; Fortuna's wheel had turned on humanity, crushing its collarbone, smashing its skull, twisting its torso, puncturing its pelvis, sorrowing its soul. Having once been so high, humanity fell so low. What had once been dedicated to the soul was now dedicated to the sale."
But he actually TALKS like that, too:

  • "My nerves!" Ignatius said. He was slumped down in the seat so that just the top of his green hunting cap appeared in the window, looking like the tip of a promising watermelon. From the rear, where he always sat, having read somewhere that the seat next to the driver was the most dangerous, he watched his mother's wild and inexpert shifting with disapproval. "I suspect that you have effectively demolished the small car that someone innocently parked behind this bus. You had better succeed in getting out of this spot before its owner happens along."
It reminds me of Sherlock Holmes, for some reason, but never was there a Holmesian story that felt so much like an extended episode of "M*A*S*H"; as with the show, there are a couple of reasonably sane characters surrounded by insanity. The sanest of them all is a young black man (Burma Jones) who sits in the background and watches all the craziness: Ignatius organizing co-workers in a revolt against a "tyrannical" employer; a low-end bar owner who produces pornographic postcards; an elderly man who fancies Ignatius' mother; Ignatius selling hot dogs on Bourbon Street, dressed as a pirate.

The other sane one is Gus Levy, owner of the Levy Pants factory. He hates the company his overbearing father left him; his wife hates him for this, and is little more than a constantly-scheming ridicule machine bent on undermining Gus and alienating his daughters from him. It's his company Ignatius tries to free the workers from--so of course Mrs. Levy decides Ignatius must be some sort of heroic idealist.

Ignatius' mother grows the most in the story; in the beginning, Irene is Ignatius' doormat, hiding in a cheap-wine stupor. But she makes a friend who convinces her to stand up for herself.

It's a fun read, but not a challenging one. You're not going to get deep thoughts and learn arcane things, here.

No comments: