Sunday, July 29, 2012

An enthralling book: A Confederacy of Dunces

The online magazine/blog Boing Boing has asked friends to write an essay about a book that was enthralling, a book that “captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them.”

Though Boing Boing’s invitation wasn’t extended to me, I couldn’t resist the temptation to recount one of the best books I’ve ever read, a book that was nothing less than enthralling: “A Confederacy of Dunces,” the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by John Kennedy Toole.

I discovered a paperback version of the novel quite by accident in an antique store when I first arrived in London, England in 1984. After the opening paragraph, I was hooked:

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D.H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Ignatius J. Reilly is a lumbering, slothful, 300-pound young man who lives with his widowed mother in New Orleans. Due to circumstances, he must find a job, and the novel tells the story of his failed and often hilarious attempts to find gainful employment and to understand his life.

An educated man, Reilly makes clear in his conversations, letters and journal entries that he disdains the contemporary world of pop culture and its “lack of theology and geometry.” He complains about everything and everyone. He bounces from one improbable situation to the next, encountering characters who are loveable and unforgettable, especially his so-called love interest, Myrna Minkoff, whom Reilly refers to as “the minx.”

I spent an entire day holed up inside a hotel room reading “Confederacy,” while I should have been out looking for work and a place to live. It was a completely indulgent activity to shirk more pressing obligations, and yet something about Ignatius J. Reilly’s flawed character, his wildly distorted worldview and his comic misadventures struck a nerve and kept me glued to the pages.

Though I’ve only read “Confederacy” once, the novel has had a lasting impact on me. Perhaps it’s time (some 30 years later) to get reacquainted with Ignatius J. Reilly and to see how this extraordinary tale holds up after all these years.


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