Amazon: Average: 4.2. Mode: 5 stars (66%).
Goodreads: Average: 3.87. Mode: 5 stars (39%)
"A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs."
Meet Ignatius J. Reilly, the hero of John Kennedy Toole's tragicomic tale, A Confederacy of Dunces. This 30-year-old medievalist lives at home with his mother in New Orleans, pens his magnum opus on Big Chief writing pads he keeps hidden under his bed, and relays to anyone who will listen the traumatic experience he once had on a Greyhound Scenicruiser bound for Baton Rouge. ("Speeding along in that bus was like hurtling into the abyss.") But Ignatius's quiet life of tyrannizing his mother and writing his endless comparative history screeches to a halt when he is almost arrested by the overeager Patrolman Mancuso--who mistakes him for a vagrant--and then involved in a car accident with his tipsy mother behind the wheel. One thing leads to another, and before he knows it, Ignatius is out pounding the pavement in search of a job.
The publication of this book is something of a story in itself: A Confederacy of Dunces was written in the 1960s by John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide in 1969 after it was rejected by publishers. His mother then spent years trying to get it published. She finally succeeded in 1980, and Toole won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It's now considered a modern American classic.
I feel very conflicted about this book. It's brilliant, it's funny, it's wacky, it's got some seriously inspired characterization.
There's also no character arc and no real plot; rather, there are a bunch of subplots that read like interwoven sitcom episodes.
So, meet Ignatius J. Reilly:
He's a reactionary lapsed Catholic who thinks the Pope isn't authoritarian enough. He's a delusional blowhard who writes deranged letters to his never-was girlfriend. He's a pompous ass who thinks he's a genius born into the wrong century. He throws bombastic temper tantrums at the slightest provocation, and is constantly complaining about his "Valve." He masturbates to memories of his dog.
By the end of the first chapter, I wanted him to get hit by a bus. By the end of the book, I wanted him to DIE!DIE!DIIIIEEEEE!!!!
Considering that Ignatius is essentially harmless, other than being obnoxious and offensive to everyone around him, I guess it's a credit to the author that he was able to rouse such strong feelings in me. And the characters in this book are very, very colorful and interesting and weird and funny, and if you're the sort of person for whom this book was written, you'll love it, and clearly a lot of people do. People who love it really love it, and people who hate it really hate it. I see a lot of reviews of A Confederacy of Dunces that say things like "I can't imagine being friends with anyone who doesn't love this book" and "If you don't like this book you just DON'T GET IT!"
I did get it. It just wasn't funny enough to overcome my revulsion for the main character (and to a lesser extent, most of the other characters).
Who are the people who would enjoy this book? I think a good litmus test is Seinfeld.
I loathed Seinfeld. It reveled in being a show about nothing. It starred deeply unpleasant, unhinged, self-centered wackaloons careening from one absurd misadventure to another without ever changing, learning anything, or behaving like actual human beings. I could never sit through a single episode. I know it was basically an inoffensive show, but just hearing that stupid !@$%*#! sound effect played between commercial breaks is like nails on a chalkboard to me that makes me want to throw something through the TV set.
It was also one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, and I know some of you are reading this and thinking, "WTF dude, I loved Seinfeld!" Well, you'll probably love A Confederacy of Dunces. Just move the Seinfeld cast to New Orleans in the 1960s and make them, umm, completely different people. But still unpleasant, unhinged, self-centered wackaloons careening from one absurd misadventure to another without ever changing, learning anything, or behaving like actual human beings.
There is a lot of finely crafted description, and the subplots are brilliantly constructed. Toole probably would have become a Big Name author if he'd lived. There were actually some parts that came close to making me laugh out loud, and I never do that while reading. There are many "OMG he did not!" moments. Ignatius's encounter with a coterie of gay blades in the French Quarter is hilarious, as are his letters to and from Myrna Minkoff (who is in her own way as oblivious and self-involved as Ignatius). The stripper Darlene's unfortunate acting debut as "Harlett O'Hara" and the biting commentary of Burma Jones, a black man forced to work at Darlene's club to avoid vagrancy charges (and who exacts payback in full), also made this book almost worth the experience.
But, the only part of the book that really made me want to cheer was when Ignatius stepped in front of a bus. Yes! I thought, the author is going to grant my wish! Well, I won't spoil it by telling you whether he does. I will say, however, that this book has not changed my attitude about Seinfeld one iota.
Verdict: I think it's hard to be lukewarm about this book; either you're going to love it or you're going to think it was a waste of your time. I'm gonna go with "waste of time," except that since it's so highly-regarded, one of those Books Everyone Should Read, it's worth giving a try. Either you'll join the fan club, or at least you'll be able to say you read it.