A Confederacy of Dunces
The Neon Rainbow

(This column was first published in the February 24, 2000 ArtVoice of Buffalo, NY.)

    John Kennedy Toole took the title of his 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning book, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES (Louisiana State University Press, now reissued by Random House) from Jonathan Swift's prophesy: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him." Not only did he derive the title from Swift but Toole modeled his attitude toward society and his method of communicating that attitude on Swift as well.

    Indeed, in this most unusual comic novel, everyone seems intent on opposing the self-proclaimed New Orleans genius, Ignatius J. Reilly. But this time his opponents clearly have right on their side. Reilly may indeed be a genius but he is also quite simply obnoxious. He is a lazy, self-centered, spoiled slob and his behavior is outrageous. But, as they say, Aside from that....

    Despite the absence of redeeming features from his character, Ignatius J. Reilly is clearly the hero of this book. His wildly out-of-whack attitude toward employment, education, politics, philosophy, writing, and sex are not only weirdly comic but his adventures hold one of those Fun House distorted mirrors -- a cracked mirror at that -- up to society.

    Finally forced by his mother to seek employment, Reilly finds jobs first as an office worker in a clothing factory where his response to a complaint leads to a half-million-dollar law suit against the company and his interactions with the company's employees lead to a strike. Meanwhile he simplifies the company's filing system simply by discarding the files. Fired from this post, he operates a hotdog pushcart, eating far more of his product than he sells. This career ends in a spectacular episode in which Reilly, dressed in his vendor's pirate costume, is attacked by a Bourbon Street stripper's cockatoo, flees into the street where he is almost hit by a bus, passes out from fright, has his picture appear in the newspaper appearing like a beached whale, and is hospitalized for shock. His mother, no longer willing to put up with him, seeks to have him moved to a psychiatric ward (where he probably belongs to protect us more than him), but Reilly manages to escape by riding off with his much maligned girl friend, Myrna Minkoff.

    If you fail, as well you might, to see anything Swiftian in that precis, I only suggest that the devil is in the details.

    Even more remarkable than this story is the sad history of Toole himself. After abortive attempts to have this book published, he committed suicide when he was only 31 years old and it was only through the pestering of a creative writing teacher at Loyola University by his eccentric mother that the manuscript was finally read and saved from oblivion. Thus, in the words of Walker Percy, who squired Confederacythrough publication in 1980, "at the heart of Ignatius's great gaseous rages and lunatic adventures" lingers tragedy.

    It is odd indeed that Thelma Toole took on the mission of having her son's book published as she is clearly the model for Ignatius's mother, a woman who represents all the negative qualities of a doting mom and a near inebriate. But support it she did -- to the end, she referred to her son as "the darling" -- and, now 80 years old, she was finally able to bask in his well-merited posthumous fame. She even took to the stage to dramatize scenes from the book.

    There is, in fact, still more to the story. Toole had written an earlier novel, THE NEON BIBLE (Grove Press), when he was only 16 years old. Mrs. Toole's brother and his children had given up the rights to Confederacywhen it appeared to have no value, but they were not about to surrender those valuable rights for this second book. (This is the same Louisiana Napoleonic Code that plays a role in A Streetcar named Desire.) Unfortunately this led to haggling that lasted even after Mrs. Toole's death. Only after the sides agreed to settle -- in the face of the book being otherwise auctioned off -- was the book finally published in 1989, twenty years after the author's death.

    Intrigued by this story, I read this second novel and was immensely impressed. Very different from Confederacy,it is the story of a shy and naive but perceptive young man passing through childhood in a bigoted Mississippi small town. I liked it more than I did his later novel. Judged against all literature it easily holds its own; judged against anything written by a sixteen-year old, it is spectacular. If you can find a copy of this wonderful book, I urge you to read it.

    As a tantalizer, I offer just one passage about his new elementary school teacher: "She recognized me right away and asked if the hussy was still living with us. I asked her what she meant, and she said that I should stop trying to pull her leg, that she knew my smart-aleck kind, that I was a perfect nephew for Aunt Mae, sly and tricky. When she said 'sly and tricky,' it sounded like the kind of words the preacher at church used, and I didn't like him. Her name was Mrs. Watkins. I knew her husband too, because he was a deacon at the church. I don't know what he did for a living, but his name was always in the paper trying to make the county dry, trying to keep the colored people from voting, trying to take Gone with the Windout of the county library because so many people were reading it and he just knew it was 'licentious.' Someone wrote a letter to the paper asking if Mr. Watkins had ever read the book, and Mr. Watkins answered it saying that no, he would never lower himself to such a degree, that he 'just knew' it was dirty because they were going to make a movie of it and therefore it had to be dirty, and that the man who had questioned his activities was an 'agent of the devil.' All this made the people of the county respect him, and a group met in front of the library in black masks and went in and took Gone with the Windoff the shelf and burned it on the sidewalk. The sheriff didn't want to do anything about it because he'd get into too much trouble with the people in town, and anyway, the election was next month."

    I don't know about you but at sixteen I had trouble writing a paragraph, to say nothing of organizing a deeply felt and genuinely moving novel like this one. Toole's suicide took from us a remarkable craftsman.-- Gerry Rising