“When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.” – Jonathan Swift
Someone very dear to me gifted me a copy of a dense novel, its tender blue inked inscription reading, “A great American book that will make you laugh.” What I’ve come to learn, after reading and re-reading, is that John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is assuredly one of the finest works of fiction almost never read.
Presented is the protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly, stringent medievalist, fat and getting fatter, a philosophical oaf nursing a touchy pyloric valve and a loathing for modern society’s infernal lack of a proper theology and geometry.
In New Orleans unfolds a tale of Ignatius’ taking a calamitous downward spin on Fortuna’s unceasing wheel. Piteously and pre-destinedly, he waits for his mother outside a department store where he is soon accosted by a mousy patrolman desparate to haul a suspicious character to the precinct. Green hunting cap flapping, Ignatius bellows at the rash little officer, “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs and lesbians…don’t make the mistake of bothering me. ”
And so ensues a madcap tragicomedy, wrought with greasy nightspots and Boethian thought, vagrancy and gods of Commerce, righteous political crusades and Paradise Vendors’ slimiest steamed hotdogs. It is a jolly and perturbing narrative of porportions even bigger than those of Ignatius’ waistline.
Penned in the early sixties, the novel remained unpublished until 1980, eleven years after the suicide of its author. Sadly for Toole and a vast readership today, his efforts to have his book sent to the presses only culminated in depression and self-destruction. Yet Toole’s mother took up his mantle, hounding publishing houses and the literati until one, at last, and all too gladly, relented. For what Mrs. Toole knew, as did the dead son she persisted on for, was that it was an awfully good story.
Big name comedians and producers have taken several stabs over the decades at adapting A Confederacy of Dunces for the screen.
Remarkably, in this age seething with rapidly released mega-trilogies and financial projects masquerading as half-hearted movie sequels, none of those big name attempts has succeeded in getting off the ground.
Midway through another reading of the book, I am still grateful to that dear gift giver for its humble pages, not in technicolor but riveting all the same. Tearing through the same paragraphs once more, part of me can’t help but credit the succession of cinematic failures to the workings of something more esoteric than exceeded budgets; to the influence of Toole’s smirking spectre, hovering sagely and protecting what is his, and what he knew long before others was nearly too well-conceived in its original form to be cheapened or reshaped.
Source: John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, Penguin Essentials Edition, 2011 Cover art by Gary Taxali