I was wandering through the bookstore one afternoon when I came across a small stack of the same book on clearance. They were each $4.99. What intrigued me the most was the cover. It was a fat man in motion, holding a hot dog and looking over his shoulder. It was called A Confederacy of Dunces and by the looks of the cover, it was a comedy. With the current goings-on in Washington I assumed this was some odd political comedy novel about a fat guy having to slosh his way through the political arena. One peek inside and I realized just how wrong I was. This was a novel about a guy, who seemed like a bunch of guys I know, real intellectual fellows who have a knack for smarts, but clearly lack in every other department. Oh, how fun! I quickly paid for the book and rushed home to dive in.
Reading the first few pages, I immediately began to loathe the main character. Ignatius J. Reilly was the kind of guy you meet at parties and immediately want to get away from. In modern nomenclature, he would be classified as a neckbeard, a narcissistic oaf who is so socially inept that he can’t decode others strained tolerance of him, and he translates this as evidence of his own charm. The one big difference between Ignatius and the rest of his neckbeard brethren is that these guys usually try to seek out the admiration of the young ladies. They’re of the mind that women owe them something just because they’re “nice guys,” and “know how to treat a lady.” When these women shun their advances, these guys usually blow up in a rage, calling her a “slut,” and other hurtful words. Ignatius does none of this. Sex doesn’t even seem to cross his mind. The one woman who does have an interest in, he shuns her away and calls her a “minx.”
At no point early on did I ever imagine that I’d grow to like Ignatius. He is callous and rude to his mother. He finds that jobs are beneath him, and keep him from doing his ultimate work, which is writing some sort of weird manifesto. Ignatius is everything you would hate in another human being. If I ever ran into an exact duplicate of Ignatius, I would punch him. Mind you, I have known people with similar traits, but at least they had some redeeming qualities. Ignatius has none.
Ignatius aside, what I really liked about this book was the author, John Kennedy Toole’s ability to weave all the characters together into one single story. It takes place some time in the early to mid ‘60s, in New Orleans. What starts out as a trip to the department store, ends up with Ignatius almost getting arrested by Patrolman Mancuso. Then, Ignatius and his mother flee into the Night of Joy bar, where we are introduced to Darlene, a bar girl, and Dorian Greene. Both take more active roles later. Ignatius and his mother leave the bar, get into her car, and then, slipping on wet ground, his mother Irene slams into the side of a building. Having to eventually foot the bill for the building she damaged, Irene forces Ignatius to get a job to help her pay.
Another thing to mention about Ignatius is that he subscribes to the teaching of Boethius, who tells us that there is no point in striving to become more than you are. A sociology professor told us once that this is called “staying in your tree.” Ignatius realizes that he’s never going to be more, so he’s just accepted this aspect of his life as “fate,” and decided to just rest there on his laurels. He feels he lives in a corrupt and sickening world, surrounded by perverts, alcoholics and other degenerates. However, he spends most of his time being a glutton, and watching films at the local cinema.
Through Ignatius’ adventures, we are introduced to even more characters. Myrna Minkoff is a sort of ex-girlfriend of Ignatius. Even though he openly states how much he loathes her, he often goes out of his way to try and impress her, even though she’s miles and miles away in New York. She is an activist for civil and human rights, as well as an advocate for the free sex movement. Ignatius wants to show her that he too can be a friend to the common man, by trying to get the African-American employees of the pants factory, where he works as a file clerk, to rise up and strike against their oppressors. Things don’t go well for Ignatius, and his endeavors take another turn for the worse.
I won’t spoil the rest of the book for you, but we get to meet more characters after this, most who have some association to previous characters. Jones, who once saw Ignatius on the bus, and had heard stories from Darlene about the fat guy who was mean to his mother, has a catalytic encounter with Ignatius, which eventually spirals into the book’s ultimate climax. Jones had heard from the pant factory employees that Ignatius was trouble, so he keeps a weary eye on the guy. Minor characters also can turn major at any minute. A kid that gets into a tussle with Ignatius over a hot dog, comes back into the fold to be a necessary cog in the book’s grand finale. Dorian Greene even takes part in the domino effect that leads to the climax. The interconnection of all these odd characters is astounding to me. Toole must have been at this for months trying to make sure every person introduced comes back later to add to the cacophony of elements leading up to the last chapters. Such brilliant storytelling this was!
I never thought it would happen, but by the end I did feel a bit sorry for Ignatius. Even after the horrible things he did, he still came out this story as an anti-hero of sorts. You’re not supposed to like Ignatius, but you do end up rooting for him, especially after all the mess that happens that created the butterfly effect, which surprisingly closed off each character’s story, except for Ignatius. While I still loathe the character, I did finish the book with a sense of having a better understanding to why he is the way he is. I walked away from the book with hope that Ignatius J. Reilly will see brighter days.
PS: I also found out that the soft drink he loves is a real beverage. Here I thought Dr. Nut was a Dr. Pepper rip-off created for the book. Nope, it was a real drink. Check it out. It's been discontinued for years. When the book was published, Dr. Nut had already been gone for some time. Apparently, you can get a similar taste by mixing Dr. Pepper and Amaretto Almond Liqueur.