Thursday, June 7, 2018

Pulitzer Project: A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces is an odd book. The author died nine years before it was published. His mother found the manuscript after John Kennedy Toole committed suicide and then devoted her life to making sure it found its way into print. The novel's rejection by multiple publishers was apparently one of the things that drove Toole to kill himself, which I'll confess strikes me as an odd reason to voluntarily check out. Authors get rejected all the time.

The novel's initial rejection doesn't surprise me. The novel is set in New Orleans in what seems to be the early 1960's. The various reviews and cover blurbs I've read all use phrases like "comic" and "rollicking masterpiece." I guess once it was actually in print no one wanted to use more accurate terms, like "weird" or "inchoate." This is another novel that reads more like a preliminary draft, maybe pass two or three the planned novel, but still a work in progress that's begging for a good copy editor. The various pieces are reasonably well written, there are flashes of whatever the equivalent of slapstick on paper might be, but it's uneven. The reader goes from being intrigued and amused to repelled and back again to amusement with fair amounts of befuddlement interspersed. There is a narrative thread, but it has some definite knots in it.

A Confederacy of Dunces follows the misadventures of a creature that is now familiar to us all, the man-child who refuses to grow up and apparently intends to sponge off an aging parent forever. The hero, such as he is, is one Ignatius Reilly, a character best described as a fat neurotic slob. Reilly is apparently really, really smart in one narrow area of expertise and a complete screw-up when it comes to life in general. H survived college, apparently even managed to acquire a Master's in something (history?), and then blew it when he had a chance to land a teaching job in Baton Rouge. He had a panic attack on the Greyhound, decided he could not survive outside New Orleans, and has spent several years doing the equivalent of living in a basement and eating Cheetos. He cultivates the air of an eccentric genius, but is absolutely lost when it comes to living in the real world. He also comes across as thoroughly physically repellent (morbidly obese, wears funny clothes, totally self-centered) so the fact he has an actual girlfriend, a bohemian New Yorker with money, seems more than a tad unbelievable.

But then, so is everything else in this novel, which is one of the reasons it qualifies as "rollicking" and "comic" instead of just odd. There's a police officer who keeps getting sent out dressed in very strange costumes so he can work undercover. A clothing factory that manages to keep muddling along despite the fact none of the employees seem to have a clue as to what they're doing or why. A bar owner who's making most of her money by selling pornographic photographs to high school students. Ignatius's alcoholic mother, who against all odds manages to snag a fiance.

In short, this is a novel that today might be described as "magical realism." Back when it was published I'm not sure what they called it, although the publishers managed to round up a slew of well-known authors and scholars to praise it. I will say that Toole manages to capture the seedy, slightly tawdry atmosphere one associates with New Orleans, especially the New Orleans of 60 years ago, really well. New Orleans always strikes me as being a city that has seen better days even when it was what qualified as "better days." It never was a shining city on a hill -- it's also one of those rare places where having seen it one time I have no desire to ever go there again. But I digress.

Where would I rank this book in the overall scheme of things for Pulitzer winners? I'm not sure. It might be unquantifiable. No number for it because in some ways it's up on the high end and in others it's down on the low side of the scale. You know, interesting lyrics but you can't dance. Would I recommend it to other readers? Again, I'm not sure. If you're the type of reader who likes a nice clean narrative and having everything make sense as you go along, this is not the book for you. Do you like a little eccentricity tossed in? Then maybe you'll like A Confederacy of Dunces. It's not a particularly easy read, but it's also not hard, just a tad choppy. I've read worse.

Next up on the list: Rabbit is Rich by John Updike. I probably won't get to it until sometime in the Fall when Interlibrary Loan resumes with the new school year. The L'Anse Public Library has several of Updike's novels, including one in the Rabbit series, but not the one I need.

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