What I’ve Been Reading: A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole

At a lovely AWP session on blogging as a writer, the panelists’s advice was to pick two or three topics one cared about and write posts on them. This task has been difficult for me because I care about things like climate change, LGBTQ rights, church politics relating to LGBTQ folks, not treating the poor like garbage, Tolkien, archery, and the South not making itself more stupid than it already has been. So, either nerd things or things that make my eye twitch. Splitting the difference, here’s the first of an ongoing set of novel reviews.

I’ve been to New Orleans, but I was like twelve, and twelve is a really weird age to go to New Orleans.

I’m sure when I return, I will see Nola differently having explored it at the side of Ignatius J. Riley, the anti-hero of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. If we divide up Southern Lit, we might wind up with Appalachian work (Lee Smith, Fred Chappell), deep South work (Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor; the majority), and New Orleans work, in which Toole has a well-deserved place. Dunces glitters with rich dialogue. Its humor never lets up in the short game or over the longer episodes, as poor slob Riley repeatedly fails at mostly everything.

And slob he is. I was thankful that literature can only go so far to conjure an accurate image of a person in my mind. Physical disgustingness aside, Riley is a Miniver Cheevy sort, wishing that he lived in the Middle Ages rather than debauched, uncentered modernity (Like me in high school). One of the things I love about the novel as a genre is its capacity for empathy; the only way one can avoid relating to a protagonist is to throw the book down. In a picaresque novel, where just about everyone is disgusting somehow, and with an anti-hero who fulfills none of those nice humanity-restoring roles we look for, empathy becomes difficult. Or at least, different. I wound up rooting for the trickster, Burma Jones, and feeling terribly sorry for poor Mrs. Riley.

The oaf Ignatius does get his redemption, in a way. After a climax in which he saves the day by simply being himself, there’s a nice chapter not unlike the final episode of Seinfeld as Riley’s bumbling into things somehow makes everything turn out okay. In the denoument, significantly, Riley’s final transformation is connected to gratitude, which he feels in the novel’s closing pages.

Perhaps I’m judging the novel harshly. It really is hilarious, and pokes plenty of fun at 1960’s culture. I have no doubt that it presents New Orleans of that era as well as Twain represented the Mississippi river’s towns in Huckleberry Finn, carrying on that proud tradition of showing the world back exactly, only through a funhouse mirror.

The presentation of gay characters like Dorian Greene threw me off, however. They are presented with promiscuity and foppishness, and they all cross-dress–I’m not sure how close those two things were in the Venn diagram of the ’60’s. Maybe more than I think.  Probably that was how the LGBTQ population were portrayed in culture back then, but in today’s light, it looks terribly stereotypical. But so is everyone in the book. Can you do that?

I hoped Myrna Minkoff, our zealous protester of everything, might be more progressive, but she had that awful “cure the gay away” bug too.

Better book title, for readers with two or more degrees: “Don’t Be this Guy.”


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