Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Wheel of Fortuna

As Ignatius Reilly, an enormous 30 year old man, prepares to move out of his mother's house, his girlfriend who is helping him asks "Don't you want to pack anything?"  To this, Ignatius responds "Oh, of course.  There are all of my notes and jottings.  We must never let them fall into the hands of my mother.  She may make a fortune from them.  It would be too ironic." 

That line so embodies the publishing of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, that I question whether Toole actually wrote it, or if it was added when it went to publication.  You see, Confederacy was published in 1980, and Toole committed suicide in 1969.  As we are told in the prologue, Confederacy only got published after Toole's mom badgered a professor at Loyola to read it.  The professor reluctantly agreed, if only to stop the pestering calls from Mrs. Toole, thinking that he could give it a try, hate it, and give it back.  Instead, he found that Confederacy was really good.  So good, in fact, that it not only got published, it also won the Pulitzer, most likely making Mrs. Toole a very nice fortune.

The story begins with Ignatius waiting for his mother, Irene, outside of a store.  A police officer, Angelo Mancuso, tries to arrest Ignatius for doing just that.  When Ignatius explains that he is only waiting for his mother, the crowd around him erupts in protest, leading to the arrest of an old man, Claude Robichaux.  At the police station, Mr. Robichaux meets a black man who had also been arrested on shaky grounds, Burma Jones.  To recover from their shock, Ignatius and his mother stop at a local bar, The Night of Joy, for a drink, not realizing that it is a strip club.  The rest of the novel follows the characters that we meet in that one incident, and their crazy struggles to find happiness in New Orleans.

Ignatius is an over educated man who is still living with his mother because it would be much too stressful for him to get a job.  He also needs time to write a manifesto about his world view.  Ignatius is the sort who would never use a one syllable word if a 3 or 4 syllable word would work instead.  His mother, Irene, on the other hand, is a very simple woman who hasn't even managed to master English, which is her only language.  Ignatius is constantly demanding that Irene make changes to improve his life, including things like doing a better job with his laundry.  You do remember that he is 30, right?  He actually demands that everyone who comes into contact with him work to make the world a better place.  However, his idealism is entirely self centered and misdirected.  Ignatius constantly prays to and curses the goddess, Fortuna.  He is titillated by sexuality in the way of old Republican men - "That's disgusting!  Let me see that!"-  and feels a need to investigate further.

Throughout the book, I had to wonder how much Toole had in common with Ignatius, and how much Mrs. Toole had in common with Irene.  When he killed himself, Toole was a 31 year old man, who was living with his parents.  He was even more educated than Ignatius, but he was drafted, and started working on the novel while in the military.  I would guess that Toole in the military felt a little like Ignatius as a hot dog vendor.  I hope that the relationship between Toole and his mom was nothing like that between Ignatius and his. Given the suicide, I have to wonder if even though he wasn't actually very similar to Ignatius, Toole saw himself as being exactly that, and kept drawing Ignatius as a caricature of his own worst self.

Much has been written about why this book won the Pulitzer.  I won't pretend that the Pulitzer people consult me for my opinions, as we have disagreed in the past.  However, this time, I think I get it.  The characters in Confederacy are so crazy, yet still multi-dimensional and well written.  Each has a distinct way of talking that tells you who they are and what their world view might be.  The story is ridiculous, but it all works so well.  The characters grow throughout the novel, and by the end, they are each a little closer to finding the life that they have been hoping to live.

In Other News:  Remember just a few days ago, when I was complaining that none of the books in my son's 9th grade curriculum were written more recently than 1960?  Well guess what?  As a ridiculously over-involved parent, I am on my district's Education Council, which is a group of parents, teachers and administrators who meet monthly to review and vote on curriculum related issues.  This week, we were asked to approve a new book for students in a program for 9th-12th graders called Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende.  It is a work of historical fiction, set primarily in Chile in the 1500s, and it was published in 2006!  We unanimously approved the purchase.  Unfortunately, the book will be used at the other high school in our district, and not my son's, but who knows - it's a foot in the door, right?  Now I need to add it to my TBR list.  I just hope I don't hate it after reading it, and regret my vote.  That seems unlikely. 

A Confederacy of Dunces is the second book down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next up on CD:  The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott.

Still Reading:  LARP:  The Battle for Verona by Justin Calderone


  1. I had a really hard time with the book. I understood that it was a somewhat autobiographic novel, but I couldn't relate to the character. There's some Hitler symbolism that completely went over my head. AND, apparently, this is a book you'll love if you live in New Orleans, which I've never been in. In short, it really wasn't for me. But I DO understand why so many people think it's funny!

    1. For me, it helped to listen to it in audio form. The reader was really good, and kept me interested. It didn't make my list of favorites, but I do think it was worth reading.


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