Book Reconsideration: “A Confederacy of Dunces” — Still an American Comic Masterpiece?Breaking News
tags: books, New Orleans
Toole’s life story is compelling for a number of reasons. The biggest is probably because Confederacy, his only full-length novel, came very close to never being published at all. If it weren’t for Toole’s indomitable mother spending years knocking on every possible door to finally get her son’s lost masterpiece published, and respected local author Walker Percy finally reading the smeared manuscript, the Pulitzer-winning book would never have seen the light of day. Poor Toole had everything going for him most of the time — wit, education, charisma, talent — but in the end his private demons and public disappointments got the better of him.
Confederacy has gradually gained the status of a beloved cult classic, the kind of book insistently pressed on you by enthusiastic fans. The blurbs on the back cover are the kind every author dreams of getting, hailing it as a masterpiece and one of the funniest books of all time. Reilly is the kind of character who people like to use as a metaphor. I’ve met many people who are compared to him — and a few people who are a lot like him but don’t have anyone around to tell them so.
Among the many vivid supporting cast, the character of Burma Jones stands out. Jones is an African American fellow who works a janitorial job at a particularly dingy spot in the Quarter only to avoid getting picked up for vagrancy. He wears dark glasses wherever he pleases while exhaling various clouds of cigarette smoke wherever he goes. Jones’s sarcastic vassalage in the Night of Joy saloon especially resonates these days when systemic racism is on everyone’s mind. Jones knows perfectly well what he’s doing when he refers to the ditzy bar owner as “Scarlet O’Horror” — and it’s not just because of his local accent.
Part of what makes Reilly so memorable as a satiric character, a self-styled intellectual who lives with his mother and smells horrible and gets off on his constant indignation and horror at the modern world, is the classic trope of the scold who has no idea how ridiculous they are. (The archetype in Western lit is Moliere’s Misanthrope.) Reilly thinks he’s always being perfectly reasonable, of course, while he bloviates and belches and causes a distinct kind of merry hell for everyone around him. A subtle sympathy is even generated, given how often Ignatius remarks about how wounded he is and how distraught his nerves are by all the things that he goes through. His “valve” tends to snap shut in disgust whenever his expectations go awry, and releases noxious fumes the way a skunk does, both in self-defense and as self-assertion.
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