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For people who spend the day saying and writing things that others accept, while thinking things that are infinitely more interesting.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

A Confederacy of Dunces

I’d seen the book many times, sitting at eye level, the cartoonish characters on the cover almost in motion, a fat guy wearing a green hunting cap (the kind with ear flaps) posing in a Jack Benny-ish gesture of simpering disdain.

The book had raised some controversy, for being a comedy about the South, it had struck the many exposed nerves of the “Dixie Gentry.” The author, John Kennedy O’Toole, had woven an outrageous tale centered on one of the most improbable, undefinable and fascinating characters to ever lumber, thunder and gambole across the printed page. That this character and his supporting cast happened to accurately skewer Southern life, mores, society and misperceptions-taken-as-Gospel only added well-deserved insult to insight.

The novel, the brilliant outpouring of a young man’s talent and ambition, almost didn’t see the light of day. Depressed over his inability to find a publisher, Kennedy committed suicide seven years after finishing Dunces. It fell upon his mother, a teacher of dramatic arts and avid reader, to find someone who could see in the manuscript what she had seen. Rejection followed rejection over several years. Then she collared Walker Percy and practically forced him to read it. As the novelist says in his Introduction, he reluctantly read it at first hoping it was bad, then with increasing wonder until he was overwhelmed. In 1980, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize.

Ignatius J. Reilly is described as “part Falstaff, part Don Quixote” by some lazy reviewer. Reilly is much, much more. Philosophical, dependent, arrogant, erudite, lazy, intuitive, confused, passionate, analytical, funny, bone-headed, pathetic, sensitive and insensitive, a heroic coward wrapped in stained bedsheets, Reilly stands alone as a literary creation. As you read the novel, you shake your head in disbelief, and if you are a writer, you gape in Percy-like awe at what Kennedy flung at the page with devastating accuracy.

And beyond Reilly is a cast of deftly-written portraits that feel more like biographies than fiction. Time and again the reader with Southern memories will find familiar “faces” and scenes that seem as if Kennedy had sat on the collective porches of Southern families and simply taken notes.

I’ve read Dunces six times now and I look forward to a half-dozen more readings in the coming years. The novel lulls you in like the French Quarter on a foggy morn, odd and quiet, eerie even, then erupts into a raucous romp that carries you along to a bittersweet end. Few novels are more absorbing; even fewer have such soul.


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