The publishing history of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is a morose one to recount. In 1969, at the age of 31—after struggling for years with anxiety, paranoia, and depression, which were in turn catalyzed by the successive rejections of his works for publication by notable figures in the publishing business—Toole ran a garden hose from the exhaust of his car into an unventilated cabin, killing himself. Eleven years after his death, in 1980, Toole’s novel was published after his mother shared it with writer and enthusiastic reader Walker Percy. In time, it became an international success, and A Confederacy of Dunces posthumously won John Kennedy Toole the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.
I mention all of this not merely to set the scene and sow sadness, but to establish the proper context for today’s topic: the development and embodiment of unique characters in Toole’s novel. A Confederacy of Dunces is a work of picaresque fiction, meaning that it follows the wayward exploits of a singular or iconoclastic protagonist as they attempt to navigate a variety of societal strata and scenarios. Toole was himself a singular person: a gifted scholar, a witty presence, and a troubled mind; and as a result, his protagonist is perfectly drawn for his project, while all of the other characters that Toole created are equally vibrant.
Picaresque Characters and Ignatius J. Reilly:
Vibrant life in both setting and characters is vital to picaresque fiction. Often such fiction frames a social critique or else attempts to capture the feeling of a time and a place; A Confederacy of Dunces does a little of each. Realism is not as important to picaresque as is variability and texture. In line with the way that good picaresque arises from lively character-writing, the way that I have decided to introduce and recommend this novel is by simply touring some of its notable people, to give some idea of their diversity and fully realized (if cartoonish) humanity.
First and foremost there is Ignatius, around whom the universe of A Confederacy of Dunces seems to orbit. Ignatius Jacques Reilly is an obese citizen of New Orleans with a sense of self-worth as bloated as his gut and as petty as his aversion to work of any kind. Eccentrically dressed and filthily mustachioed, Reilly wants nothing more than to write in peace on the subject of his complex conception of the many centuries of failure which have, in his opinion, yielded modern society. His personal habits are both deplorable and disgusting. Some more of his traits include that he is well-educated in pretentious self-presentation; (literally) Medieval in philosophy; and untrustworthy and slothful in every circumstance.
Ignatius’ bedroom is where he spends most of his time. On broken old Canal Street, in a dilapidated house, there exists a bedroom carpeted with arbitrary philosophical musings which have yet to be organized. The main feature of the room is a bed which is beaten up and which is covered in stained sheets, though the room also contains a writing desk and an overhead lamp, both of which are also covered in philosophy. The room is so near to his neighbor that she constantly screams at him to keep the noise down when he is playing a lute or a trumpet, as he is wont.
Speaking of Reilly’s philosophy, Toole presents long sections—interspersed throughout the work—which are meant to have been written by Ignatius, and these sections grant the reader a fuller understanding of Ignatius J. Reilly’s ignoble personality as well as his arcane, fatuous philosophy.
Throughout A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole’s diction, syntax, and even speaker vary dependent upon which character is the focus at a given point, with that focus varying many times in each chapter (a narrative tactic which is formally known as free indirect style, and which was championed in the early twentieth century by modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce). When Ignatius J. Reilly is the focus, as is most often the case, the diction is heightened and all things seem abrupt and offensive. But when, for instance, the mellow itinerant Burma Jones is the focus, the sentences are longer and less cacophonous. So let me now introduce some more of those voices.
Some Supporting Cast Members of A Confederacy of Dunces:
Myrna Minkoff was Ignatius’ love interest when the two attended the same university, though the two grew apart and Myrna moved to New York while Ignatius moved back home. She is psychosexually fixated and counterculturally dedicated. For much of the novel, she is glimpsed only through the scrawled correspondences she and Ignatius trade. Each missive is an attempt by each to make the other jealous of her or his accomplishments and to belittle her or his mental condition and pursuits. Myrna Minkoff dedicates herself to preaching philosophies which are either outlandish or entirely contrived, and it’s not hard to see how Ignatius and her could have found common ground.
Irene Reilly is Ignatius’ mother. While both self-pitying and debt-obsessed, she is understandably upset with Ignatius after personally funding his extensive education, only to have him lie around the house all day without even attempting to find work. She becomes increasingly disappointed in Ignatius as the novel progresses, and the friends she gains during the novel manage to convince her that Ignatius is the source of all of her misfortune (as well as her serious drinking problem).
Patrolman Angelo Mancuso is a law enforcement officer in New Orleans who likes being a policeman, but who is constantly under fire due to the fickle hate his boss feels for him. Mancuso encounters Ignatius almost at the novel’s outset. The paths of the two cross again and again as Mancuso’s aunt befriends Irene Reilly and as Mancuso’s undercover work in ridiculous costumes places him in close proximity to Ignatius at the story’s climax. This small-statured policeman is also integral to many of the book’s subplots.
Burma Jones is a man who is forced to work at the Night of Joy Bar for below minimum wage, so that he is not arrested for vagrancy; he sees the poor societal situation better than almost any other character, and so is ironically framed with the heaviest dialect in the book, dark sunglasses, and a cloud of cigarette smoke around his head.
Gus Levy is the owner of Levy Pants, a company he inherited from his father and at which Ignatius works for a time; Levy hates the company almost as much as he hates his wife. The Levy Pants Factory where Ignatius briefly works is a square, half-metal, half-brick antique in an undesirable location. In the brick, frontmost half are the offices where Mr. Gonzales—the office manager—and the long-overdue-for-retirement Miss Trixie work. It is here that Ignatius holds a filing job. In the metal, rear half of the building are machines, for it is a factory floor with a drunken foreman.
In the French Quarter, Ignatius J. Reilly meets Dorian Greene, a flamboyant gentleman who owns a used clothing store and an apartment building in the quarter. Reilly, inspired by Greene’s presence, devises a new plan to change the world (having previously attempted to enact his first plan, which involved inciting the factory workers of Levy Pants to march in strike), wherein a new political party of exclusively homosexuals slowly replaces all political leaders and military troops with homosexuals. The result, as reasoned by backwards and pig-headed Reilly, would be world peace, as depraved orgies would replace wars.
A Confederacy of Dunces is a book about the diversity of city life in New Orleans; and it’s a book about a collection—or confederacy—of oafish-yet-multifaceted characters all seeking a means toward contentment; and it’s a book about the oft-misguided nature of some forms of iconoclasm. It’s anyone’s guess what Toole so desperately wanted to tell the world through this work, but I would wager that his aim was to talk about one or more of those themes. After all, to my mind, he wrote a novel that entertainingly discusses and simultaneously lampoons all three.
But what makes A Confederacy of Dunces not only a clever novel, but in particular a great work of picaresque fiction, is Toole’s insistence upon creating of a full and fascinating community of well-written individuals in which to let Ignatius J. Reilly wander. If you’re a writer, this is a worthwhile study in how to put together a cast of flawed and realistic characters without re-tracing your steps. If you’re a reader, this is a light, funny, and wild ride through a period in the life of a truly objectionable character, as told by a novelist who never knew that he was heard.