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Ignatius against the World

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I came upon John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the early Eighties, and was at once rather taken by its main protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. I had never come across such a repulsive hero.

Ignatius is 30, unemployed, slothful, hugely overweight, flatulent, conceited, dependent on, and absolutely horrid to, his maroon-haired mother, with whom he still lives in uptown New Orleans. He arrives on the first page – wham! – an enormous, colourful and disruptive creature in a bizarre outfit which he considers entirely sensible. It includes a green hunting cap with earflaps which

stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once . . . [and] prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius . . . [To him] the outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.

We are only on page 2, but already I have grown fond of Ignatius, and I remain so throughout the book, despite his faults and his hypersensitive pyloric valve which closes at the least hint of stress and leads to chronic flatulence and bloating. Why am I not revolted by him? Because Toole writes about him so beautifully, with such a uniquely surprising turn of phrase and such great empathy. Perhaps this is because there is some of Toole in Ignatius. The modern world, for the most part, offends them both (Ignatius much prefers the medieval world of Boethius and lutes), they both have experience of work in a small, family-run factory and of selling food on the streets, and they both have an unusually close relationship with their mother.

Toole himself was born into a middle-class family in 1937 in New Orleans. His mother seems to have been intensely involved in his affairs from an early age,

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I came upon John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the early Eighties, and was at once rather taken by its main protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. I had never come across such a repulsive hero.

Ignatius is 30, unemployed, slothful, hugely overweight, flatulent, conceited, dependent on, and absolutely horrid to, his maroon-haired mother, with whom he still lives in uptown New Orleans. He arrives on the first page – wham! – an enormous, colourful and disruptive creature in a bizarre outfit which he considers entirely sensible. It includes a green hunting cap with earflaps which

stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once . . . [and] prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion. Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius . . . [To him] the outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.

We are only on page 2, but already I have grown fond of Ignatius, and I remain so throughout the book, despite his faults and his hypersensitive pyloric valve which closes at the least hint of stress and leads to chronic flatulence and bloating. Why am I not revolted by him? Because Toole writes about him so beautifully, with such a uniquely surprising turn of phrase and such great empathy. Perhaps this is because there is some of Toole in Ignatius. The modern world, for the most part, offends them both (Ignatius much prefers the medieval world of Boethius and lutes), they both have experience of work in a small, family-run factory and of selling food on the streets, and they both have an unusually close relationship with their mother. Toole himself was born into a middle-class family in 1937 in New Orleans. His mother seems to have been intensely involved in his affairs from an early age, egging him on to perform. By the age of 10 he was on stage as an actor and impressionist, and as a young academic in New York and then in Louisiana he continued to thrill the party circuit with his sharp and sparkling wit. When he was drafted into the army, he began to write this picaresque tale, set in New Orleans in the 1960s, returning to his parents’ home to finish it when he was discharged. The title is taken from Jonathan Swift’s ‘Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting’: ‘When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.’ Ignatius sees himself as a genius battling the dunces, but Toole did not realize, while writing, that he too would be up against them before long. The novel was initially greeted enthusiastically by a publisher, who asked Toole to revise it, which he obediently did. But then the publisher rejected it on the grounds that it ‘wasn’t really about anything’. In despair Toole turned to drink and headache medication, took a trip around the country and ended up in Mississippi, where, in 1969 at the age of 32, he committed suicide in his car. Ten years later, his book was published, thanks to the relentless efforts of his mother, who sent it to Walker Percy, a Southern writer and professor at Loyola University, New Orleans. He was stunned by its brilliance. Thank heavens for Percy and Mrs Toole! One year after its publication A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize – which just goes to show that an author should: a) not always trust publishers’ judgements; b) enlist his or her mother’s help before doing anything drastic and, most important; c) never give up. The publisher who rejected Toole’s book was quite wrong. Far from being ‘not really about anything’ it is about nearly everything: New Orleans in the early Sixties, eccentricity, alienation, contemporary attitudes to race and gender, poverty, terror of communism, family relationships and the state of society – surely enough for anyone. It tells the story of Ignatius’s attempts to find work and sort the world out, while he and his mother both try, in their own rather odd and tempestuous way, to separate. Like Toole, Ignatius is living with his mother while writing his masterpiece, which will ‘show literate men the disaster course that history had been taking for the past four centuries’. To Ignatius, 1960s New Orleans is ‘a flagrant vice capital’, filled with ‘anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists . . . frauds, jades, litterbugs and lesbians’. But a financial calamity at home forces him to seek employment, and out into the French Quarter he goes, like a giant galleon into the village pond, with unshakeable faith in his own brilliance and perfection – ‘the grandeur of my physique, the complexity of my world view, the decency and taste implicit in my carriage . . .’ He finds, or rather bludgeons his way into, his first job at the Levy Pants factory, into which his huge bulk and ego can barely fit. Having whipped up the workforce, caused a strike and almost bankrupted the business, he moves on to work as a hot-dog vendor, though he eats most of the hot dogs himself. Throughout these endeavours, he corresponds in a rather vicious and competitive way with Myrna Minkoff, ‘a loud, offensive maiden from the Bronx’ and a friend from his student days, who upsets him profoundly with her exhortations to ‘do something’ with his life, ‘get out of that womb house’ and sort out his ‘psycho-sexual crisis . . . Open your heart, Ignatius,’ urges Myrna, ‘and you will open your valve.’ Outrageous, colourful and fabulously ghastly, Ignatius and  Myrna, like all the book’s characters, could be mistaken for caricatures. Yet Toole has made them too horribly, physically real for that. You can almost smell the people and the places, feel the crush and the heat, sense the bristling fear of communists, taste the vile hot dogs that Ignatius attempts to sell and rams into his own whiskery mouth. In contrast to the factory-owner Levy’s luxurious home – ‘a permanently seventy-five-degree womb connected to the year-round air-conditioning unit by an umbilicus of vents and pipes that  silently filled the rooms with filtered and reconstituted Gulf of Mexico breezes and exhaled the Levys’ carbon dioxide and cigarette smoke and ennui’ – Ignatius and his mother live in a neighbourhood that had ‘degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a block that had moved into the twentieth century carelessly and uncaringly – and with very limited funds . . . A frozen banana tree, brown and stricken, languished against the front of the porch, the tree preparing to collapse, as the iron fence had done long ago . . . There were no shrubs. There was no grass. And no birds sang.’ This environment would crush lesser beings, but the Reillys are survivors. Like almost all the book’s protagonists, they may seem superficially frightful, but one cannot dislike them. Well I can’t, because they are so brave and battle on with life, although the odds seem stacked against them. They are all a testament to the vibrancy of a lost New Orleans and their attempts to cope are almost superhuman, particularly those of Jones, a young black man, who we first come across in the police station ‘eyeless behind space-age sunglasses’, puffing clouds of smoke. Jones must find a job or be arrested for vagrancy. He is offered one at the Night of Joy bar, where much of the action takes place. Jones is sharp as a tack and skilfully sums up attitudes to black people as he describes an elderly lady trying her best to avoid contact with him on the bus. ‘Look at that. She think I got siphlus and TB and a hard on and I gonna cut her up with a razor and lif her purse. Ooo-wee.’ It is tremendously difficult to describe racism in a humorous, non-earnest, yet still biting way, but Toole does it with great success. He shows us intolerance through the eyes of ‘negroes’, rather than whites. Jones and the black factory workers are the sensible ones here. The whites are the idiots who haven’t a clue, although they are convinced of their own liberal and enlightened sensitivities. Ignatius feels ‘something of a kinship with the coloured race because . . . we both exist outside the inner realm of American society’. Meanwhile, from the bottom of the social pile, Jones bravely fights his way up, along with the rest of this cast of unfortunates, against overwhelming odds. Patrolman Mancuso doggedly attempts to catch a criminal, Mr and Mrs Levy battle with their poisonous marriage and mutual loathing, and Ignatius’s mother struggles to cope with her enraging and useless son. Although worn to a frazzle, she still has tremendous spirit and fights to build herself some sort of personal life. One can only applaud them all, which makes A Confederacy of Dunces – though it may be something of a shock to current sensibilities – rather uplifting. In the book there is a sudden and convenient happy ending for everyone who deserves it. Everyone that is except for John Kennedy Toole himself, because in his case, sadly, the dunces won. They deprived us of the potential works of a ‘true genius’ – the books that Toole would probably have written, had they not crushed him to death with their rejections. But they haven’t won totally, because we still have this book. Read it and help my campaign to wreck their victory.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © Michele Hanson 2012


About the contributor

As well as writing Guardian columns, michele hanson has now broken out and written a memoir of her suburban childhood in the Fifties, What the Grown-ups Were Doing. She still lives with her two dogs and rather too many uninvited mice.

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