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Revisiting "A Confederacy of Dunces"

I reported awhile ago that I was reading H.P. Lovecraft to my fetus-daughter, but over the last few weeks we took a break from Lovecraft for a different classic tale of an unrelenting shapeless horror: Ignatius J. Reilly, protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces.


It would be a little too narcissistic (even for me) to write a plot summary and review of a book that is a strong contender for the greatest American comedy of the post-modern era. Let me just give a thirteen-word recommendation:  This is a really damn good book.  Y'all should read it right now.

Instead of a review, today I just want to write about some of my reactions to the book after rereading it for the first time in over a decade.

I first read this book when I was seventeen years old.  I loved it back then and I had been calling it one of my favorite novels ever since.  Somehow I managed to avoid rereading it until just recently.  How does the reread compare?  Short story: I still love it - even moreso now - and I'm amazed at how much I missed the first time around.

Rereading books that I read as a teenager always feels like a life-changing epiphany.  Things just seem so obvious now.  How was it possible I could have been so stupid not to get all of this?  And if I truly was that stupid, how did I manage to survive to adulthood?

Parts of the story have remained crystal-clear in my memory.  Ignatius, for example, is too grotesque and hilarious a character to easily fade away.  The scenes in the Night of Joy, too, were tragically familiar and struck home.  Most of all, I remembered the Levy Pants "riot" almost perfectly.

But everything else?  It felt completely new.  And some of it shouldn't have.

For example:  I had no idea until I re-read the book that Dorian Greene was gay.  If you haven't read the book yet, this would be like watching the Buddy sketches from Kids in the Hall and thinking he was just a bookish bartender.

Perhaps more astounding: I did not recall just how much of the book involved Ignatius's mother.  Considering that she's probably the closest thing the story has to a hero (not counting the B-plot of Mr. Levy), it's bizarre that none of her dialogue or antics have stuck with me.

Mrs. Reilly's relationship with Ignatius is also such a classic comedy trope that I'm amazed I didn't remember it.  Pretty much every loser character in movies from the last thirty years has been a fat dude who lives in his mom's basement and yells at her when she goes into his room.  Dunces seems to have invented this joke - and perfected it.  After rereading the book, I'm astounded that anybody even tries to do this bit in their own story.  How could you?  It will be the difference between the Venus de Milo and a sculpture you made out of Play-Doh during your lunch break.

There's a lot more that I've been able to interpret from the book now that I have a better perspective.  So if you'll allow me a few rambling paragraphs, here's what I got out of it as an adult.

In terms of legacy, I think maybe the greatest thing achieved by Dunces is its playful digs at young people and idealism in general.  This is not the first time I've read inter-generational conflict into a story - that seems to be a theme I'm purposefully searching for - but it is a telling example of the persistence of this conflict.  Dunces was written in 1963 and published in 1980.  This means that the perception of young adults as fat, lazy, self-indulged bastards who don't want to get a job would have rung true fifty years ago, thirty years ago, and today.  That's three generations of people who would look at the one coming after them and say, "Kids these days, let me tell ya...."

Dunces does not directly address this presumption.  It is implicit in the discussions and admonishments of the people surrounding Mrs. Reilly and her son ("Oh, that poor woman!").  Toole goes a step further with subtle criticisms of Mrs. Reilly's own attitudes: for as lazy as Ignatius is, his mother is no more responsible.  The instigating events of the story are driven by Mrs. Reilly's drunken antics that lead to property damage.  Her solution is not that she should get a job to pay for it - but that Ignatius should.  Even as Ignatius fails to bring in an income, Mrs. Reilly never tries her hand at employment.  Her solution?  Find a rich guy and marry him.  That'll do.

As for idealism - well, there's just too much for me to get into in a silly little blog post that's more for my own benefit than anybody else's.  You could pretty much teach a college course about idealism just based on this book alone.  Whether it's the conflict between Mr. Levy, a sour, but generally well-grounded realist, and Mrs. Levy, a pessimistic, acrid woman who treats idealism less as a philosophy and more as a fantastic hobby for the weekend, or the conflict between Jones, the oppressed black man working as a slave in all but name for the opportunistic and racist Lana Lee, Dunces covers the topic.  Its cast is a vast array of people each in pursuit of the American Dream and each with their own opinions on justice and freedom.  Every voice is a perfectly-realized and crystal-clear treatise on ideals and the best means by which to achieve them.

None moreso than Ignatius, who is simultaneously the smartest and most clueless of the bunch.

There's few books that I feel should be considered mandatory reading, but Dunces certainly makes that list.  If you're even remotely considering a career as a writer, a comedian, a philosopher, or even just a teacher, you pretty much have to read this book.  Even if the book doesn't do much for you, there's one thing for sure: the world needs fewer Ignatiuses.  If you suspect you might be turning into one, Dunces is a pretty good kick in the ass.