John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces

Statue of Ignatius J. Reilly guarding the hotel Chateau Bourbon Wyndham in New Orleans.

Statue of Ignatius J. Reilly guarding the hotel Chateau Bourbon Wyndham in New Orleans.

My favorite book of all time was published posthumously after Toole’s suicide. Most readers report that they find the protagonist’s escapades exasperating; at a recent book club, one of the girls voiced that she found him irredeemable. I, on the other hand, find endless enchantment in all of his antics, as Ignatius J. Reilly’s daily jaunts read like a Seinfeld episode. I cut him a little more slack and feel that at one time or another, everyone has always felt as if they don’t “fit in” in the society or situation in which they currently find themselves. Ignatius bemoans the state of modern society– that all people are wholly lacking in “taste and decency.” Ignatius is well-read but lacks the social graces to construct a productive and fulfilling life for himself. My favorite quote in the book:

“You could tell from the way he talked, though, that he had gone to school a long time. That was probably what was wrong with him.”

Ignatius was college educated, and Toole himself was a Tulane and Columbia graduate and later on a college professor; more and more in the 21st century we are finding that formal traditional education just isn’t cutting it, as it doesn’t necessarily predispose an individual for success in society or in his or her field. In fact, traditional modes of education seem to be depriving individuals of the new skill sets they need in order to adapt to a constantly evolving society. This is what Ignatius, and most likely Toole, suffered from so acutely.

The book is quasi-biographical; I have read the book two or three times and love everything about it except for the Deus Ex Machina at the end. However, seeing as the author’s life ended in suicide, perhaps the saving out of the blue at the end was just what he had been hoping for.

Traveling to New Orleans between my two readings of the book added to my understanding of the culture in which the protagonist (and author) found himself.

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