A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

I was susceptible to some superstitions when I was younger.  Or maybe we can just say that I was gullible.

My uncle once told me, many years ago when I was much younger, to savor my reading prowess while I was still young, as that too would vanish as you aged along with many other strengths of youth. He was saying this in reaction to his attempt to reread Les Miserable or some other massive tome of Victor Hugo.

He may have been correct. I have no idea. Sometimes, I find it hard to pay attention to the books I am reading. This has been happening with increased frequency as I get older. Is the aging actually the factor at play? I don’t know. I also have significantly more stress know then I did when I was younger. Maybe stress is the real issue. The point is that I don’t know, and I shouldn’t have accepted it when he said it, just because superficially it seems to make sense.

There are, after all, other factors in play.

I read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces around the same time my uncle said that to me. I was trying to burn through a whole lot of the ‘significant’, ‘literature with a big L’ books that you assume everyone and their dog has read in order to be considered ‘educated’. My urgency was a feeling that I was greatly dumber, or at the very least great less educated, than the people around me, and I hoped that reading all this books would bridge the gap.

I understood none of this book when I read it back then. I am not even sure I found it funny.

And I would like to offer that as a counter point to what my uncle once said. I still hold that it might be true that one can be too old to read certain books, but one can certainly be too young to read them as well. Or too immature, or to primed by the wrong reasons  to get anything from them.

I was all three of those when I first read this. I missed out on a lot.

The story follow Ignatius J. Reilly, a hauntingly slothful pseudo-intellectual who has been doing nothing with his life. A series of events finally causes his mother to reach a point where she begins to lose patience with her son, and begins to insist that he go out and seek employment. Doing so causes Ignatius to get in increasingly more trouble, and although Ignatius fails to see it, the causes of his problems are always of his own doing. Ultimately, although initially being punished by their proximity to Reilly, all the characters are by the end redeemed by Ignatius’ actions, and are better off by the mess he causes.

It really is a fantastic American novel, and the way it all comes together in the end is absolutely delightful. I think that my only real problem with the story is that despite what Walked Percy says in his introduction to the novel, there is a bit of what sounds to modern ears as minstrel-esse in some of the African-American characters, and in Burma Jones specifically. But that is a tough discourse to have, and the standards of late 1960’s (when this was written) and the early 1980’s (when this was published) are certainly very different from what they are now. Burma Jones felt like a bit of a caricature, but not in a very distracting way.¬† And not enough to distract me from all the virtues this novel had.

You hear a lot of high praise for this book. I find that it is worthy of it. That isn’t always the case, as some ‘classics’ are just plain fucking dull (which was my mother’s assessment of the oft-praised Italian epic Orlando Furioso, after she read it with reading club a few years short of her retirement). But this one, if read merely for the notion of something to enjoy, really does hit home.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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