Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces

by John Kennedy Toole, Jr.

"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."
–Jonathan Swift 

Ignatius J. Reilly recognized himself as one of the great minds of modern time.  A man so far above the trivial pursuits of humanity that he consumed countless notepads with his philosophies of life and morality, while reposing on his unmade bed in his filthy room; suffering the complaints and criticisms of his alcoholic mother.  To Ignatius, the material world was a place of small minds, perversion, and bad fortune; just thinking about it sent his pyloric valve into a spasm which only a junk-food binge could relieve.  As a result, Ignatius J. Reilly was a massive human specimen whose wardrobe choices served to make him as repulsive to the world as the world was to him.  When forced by circumstances beyond his control to leave the predictable solitude of his bedroom and get a job, Ignatius used his own brand of genius to right the wrongs in the world.  Never has a tail wagged a dog so hard.

As literary figures go, Ignatius J. Reilly has no peer.  Walker Percy, the southern author who saved A Confederacy of Dunces from obscurity, attempted to describe him as “a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one”.  As close as that comes, it still misses what is so essential to Ignatius, namely his extreme cognitive dissonance.  Ignatius considers himself to be worldly and sophisticated and yet has only ventured out of New Orleans, Louisiana, on a single occasion, with traumatic results.  He disdains movies, but cannot stay away from theatres out of a need to aggravate other movie-goers with his loud criticisms.  Ignatius moves about the world as if he were an oblivious, crusading king, leaving a trail of chaos and destruction in his wake, rather than a senile knight bent on slaying dragons.   He is completely irresistible.

As a scholarship student at Tulane University in New Orleans, Ignatius had distinguished himself by terrorizing one of his professors for being a fraud.  His co-terrorist, and only friend, is a young woman from New York, named Myrna Minkoff, who lives to rebel against the status quo.  The two carry on an impassioned and co-dependent competition through the mail about who is the most intellectually honest and radically socialist.  Myrna is the only one who truly appreciates and understands Ignatius but she makes him work very hard before she lets him know this.

Meanwhile, on Bourbon Street the proprietress of a sleazy strip club is up to no good and the smartest character in the book, Burma Jones – an uneducated black man who has been wrongly arrested for stealing cashews, which he hates, and then ordered to get a job or face arrest for vagrancy – decides to investigate with slapstick results.  Jones has his reasons for wanting to cause trouble which he shares in his many hilarious monologues about the abuses suffered by Black Americans under the Jim Crow laws in Louisiana.  With the unclouded vision of a child, the instincts of a spy, and the freedom of someone with nothing left to lose, Jones sees the dunces for what they are, even the ones with the power to put him in jail.

A Confederacy of Dunces is set in New Orleans during the early 1960s, a time when Communism was a growing international threat and racial unrest was beginning to boil under the surface of segregation in the south.  It is a work of comic genius and social satire which, like Ignatius J. Reilly’s treatise, was written by a young man who was not at home in the world.  John Kennedy Toole, Jr., was a precocious and talented child whose mother, Thelma, promoted constantly, some might even say shamelessly.  He was intellectually gifted and became known for his wit and comic timing which served him well as a college English professor and socialite.  For all of his popularity, however, John Kennedy Toole, Jr., was a deeply disturbed and alienated individual. 

It is quite possible that Toole struggled with his gender orientation because he reportedly never did more than kiss the few girlfriends he had in his lifetime.  While stationed in Puerto Rico during his military service Toole found himself in a barracks with an openly gay contingent and this led to ambivalent behavior on his part which created a rift between him and his fellow soldiers.  It was during this time that he began writing A Confederacy of Dunces and exhibiting the early signs of mental illness.  As he got deeper into the novel, Toole’s behavior changed in a way that suggested he increasingly identified with the self-aggrandizing, obnoxious, unrecognized genius of his own creation. 

The Army discharged Toole after two years because his parents were struggling financially due to his father’s deafness and similarly deteriorating mental health.  He moved back to his parents’ house and took a part-time teaching position at nearby Dominican College while he continued to work on his novel.  Toole enjoyed the New Orleans party and music scenes but fell into a deep depression when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.  After a few months, Toole rebounded somewhat and completed his novel.  He then sent it to Simon & Schuster in New York where it entered editorial limbo.  Robert Gottleib, the editor assigned to Toole’s manuscript, liked many things about the book, but kept asking for revisions which Toole was not able to make.  Eventually, Toole asked for his manuscript back and placed it on top of the armoire in his bedroom where it stayed until his mother convinced him to give it to newspaper publisher, Hodding Carter, Jr., who gave it a quick read and handed it back. 

This humiliating rejection took a tremendous toll on Toole who then entered a phase of mental and physical deterioration.  He drank heavily, gained a huge amount of weight, and exhibited symptoms of paranoia.  In an effort to lift himself up, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Tulane University, but the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., sent him spiraling back down into mental illness.  By the end of 1968, Dominican College had put Toole on a leave of absence because of his increasingly erratic behavior.  His once doting mother became enraged over the loss of this teaching job and Toole abruptly left home. 

An investigation following Toole’s death several weeks later revealed that he had driven to California to see William Randolph Hearst’s mansion, and then to Milledgeville, Georgia, where it is assumed he made a pilgrimage to the home of his favorite writer, Flannery O’Connor.  His final stop was Biloxi, Mississippi, where, for unknown reasons, he taped one end of a garden hose to the tailpipe of his car in order to funnel the carbon monoxide fumes emitted by the running engine into the vehicle’s interior, where he waited for oblivion.  The letter he left for his parents on the car seat next to him upset his mother so much that she destroyed it.

After two years of grief-stricken depression, Thelma Toole discovered the manuscript on top of the armoire and became determined to see A Confederacy of Dunces published.  To that end, she sent the manuscript to seven publishers, all of whom rejected it.  In 1976, the renowned author Walker Percy joined the faculty of Loyola University, adjacent to Tulane.  Thelma Toole stalked him relentlessly until Percy agreed to read the manuscript just to make her stop.  Perhaps A Confederacy of Dunces had been ahead of its time, because Percy recognized its brilliance as a work of literature and cultural artifact.  Not only was Ignatius J. Reilly a singular character, but the dunces who populated his world were as well.  Toole captured with a perfectly tuned ear the dialects spoken by white and black New Orleanais as they shared their views on Communism, racism, nuclear war, sex, and justice.  Even with Percy as champion, A Confederacy of Dunces languished for more than three years before it was published.  After an initial print run of 2,500 copies and little attention, the book suddenly caught on.  In 1981, John Kennedy Toole, Jr., received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. 

Madness and genius – sadly – often go hand-in-hand.  John Kennedy Toole, Jr., with his piercing intelligence and powers of observation perhaps saw too much of the foolishness of mankind and gave up in despair.   More likely, he wanted to be normal, to be loved, to be himself, but felt constrained by social norms and conventions.  If Thelma Toole had not destroyed her son’s suicide note, we might have some insight, but in all likelihood he shared his regret that he never measured up to her expectations.  Perhaps Ignatius J. Reilly was a mockery of his creator, the mama’s boy who grew up to disappoint, the golden boy who felt inauthentic, or worse:  the son who would never produce the Catholic grandchildren his mother pined for. 

In times of social change, it is the artists who capture the paradigm shifts.  The 1960s saw America change from “Father Knows Best” to Woodstock.  John Kennedy Toole, Jr., tried to straddle both worlds but fell into the abyss instead.  Had his mental illness not gone untreated it is likely that he might have understood that a single intellectually honest voice can sometimes enlighten the dunces.  Then again, he might never have written A Confederacy of Dunces because this work of genius is also the product of a tragically unquiet mind.

Copyright 2012 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

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