Timeless Absurdity

When you get to a certain point in your life, it can be rare to find something that astonishes you- well, at least in a good manner. I suppose the hideous always seems able to achieve new and varied freshness. They passed a law that allows WHAT? My new office is in a BATHROOM? She ate a PLACENTA? Stuff like that. But against this background static of crap, I stumbled on a work of fiction so satisfying that I find myself to be something of a zealot at this moment. In short, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a novel so completely hilarious.

The book I’m talking about is John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces”. Certainly not a hidden or secret work, it did win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, but for some reason, many haven’t discovered it.  The novel certainly deserves a loving read, and a revisit.

The only thing more bizarre than the protagonist of this book is the way that it ended up being published, but I’ll get back to that story later. It’s a crazy tale.

New Orleans resident Ignatius J Reilly is not a fan of modern society. He’s 30 years old, Master’s degree prepared, and patently unemployable. His choice of clothing “suggests a rich inner life”. His impressive girth is plagued by problems with his “valve”- a mysterious part of his anatomy which may or may not exist, but closes off periodically, causing Ignatius great and unpleasant gastrointestinal ramifications. He doesn’t like canned goods, new clothes, bowling, or any philosophy that emerged after the Middle Ages. He is not above secretly sucking the jelly out of filled donuts or starting race riots. He’s even open to alliances with “sodomites” to achieve his ends. He’s a very complicated man.

Ignatius is forced into the workplace after his mother becomes indebted due to a car accident. He grudgingly looks for a job when his she threatens to mortgage their home in response to the crisis. Ignatius is sure that someone greased the pavement as a scam, causing that fateful accident. The book follows Ignatius during this period of tumult in his life. His fantastic and comic narcissism creates some of the most hilarious situations ever put to print. And his screeds, penned on Big Chief tablets (for later publication) cause aggressive pain from laughing. It would be a crime to ruin them for you so I’ll be sparse in that regard.

But the book isn’t just about Ignatius, it’s also about New Orleans in all its technicolor freakery. The town so loves this book that a statue of Ignatius is perched on Canal Street. Of course they had to take it down during this last Mardi Gras, perhaps in deference to the disdain Ignatius holds for the denizens of the French Quarter. When he didn’t see many people walking around the area during the mid-afternoon, Ignatius surmised “Many no doubt required medical attention: a stitch or two here and there in a torn orifice or a broken genital. I could only imagine how many haggard and depraved eyes were regarding me hungrily from behind the closed shutters.” He would no doubt, assume that his statue would be molested due to his “impressive carriage” during Mardi Gras. I asked my niece, who is relatively new NOLA resident, if she had read the book. She hasn’t yet, but was told by a fortune teller down there that to truly understand the city, it is mandatory that you read the book.

Not just an amazing assortment of character studies, there is an underlying work ethic that crafted this piece. Toole went to great pains to connect disparate plots. And though Reilly is much more than a comic buffoon, the genius of the novel is that it works on that level, too. It can be slapstick, and it can be subtle. The book only gets more hilarious as you consider the intricate layers that the author has piled on with a blazing wit and a scary ability to hone in on the absurdities of human motivation. “The Consolation of Philosophy”, a hard-cover tome by Boethius keeps emerging physically in ridiculous situations, including a violent attack in a bathroom and a high school porno ring. It’s that askew craziness that makes reading this book such pure pleasure. And it’s smart as hell without an puff of pretention.

The semi-lucid screeds from Ignatius are a gently uncomfortable mirror to all of us who perhaps have a fetish for other eras, or consider ourselves to be outside of normal society, grouchily looking in. Though most of us will fake it, Ignatius makes no such concessions to social niceties and it is delicious and hideous.

There is a sharp sadness associated with the novel, though- and it’s because there will never be anything like it again. Toole did not live to see this book’s success; he took his own life on a back country road near Biloxi, Mississippi in 1969. Amazingly, he wrote the book while in his 20’s, enduring a couple of years of suggestions and revisions from an editor at Simon and Schuster– ultimately the project as it stood was rejected. Among other things, editor Robert Gottlieb told him that the book was essentially about nothing. He encouraged more action in Toole’s novel; we can presume more car chases and explosions, too.

Toole was not a person who knew how to handle failure. He was the only son of older parents; his mother in particular, was a smothering influence, expecting great things from her precocious son. And Toole was blessed with a rapid wit and a personality which made him extremely sought after for social events at the colleges and universities he taught at. When drafted, he excelled in even the military atmosphere, a fact that he found charged with irony. He probably had no idea how to handle rejection. And in truth, he did produce something astounding. What the fuck was wrong with people for not realizing it? I’m sure that bitter thought had to be circulating in his head.

Ken Toole, as he was known, would watch in a state of rapt attention when a particularly unusual person would begin talking, even going so far as unconsciously imitating the mannerisms of the person being studied. He met such a character in Bob Byrne, a fellow professor at the University of Southwest Louisiana. Byrne was a medieval studies specialist who enjoyed hotdogs, playing the lute, and wearing a duck hunter’s hat. Toole combined the weirder affectations of Byrne with an outrageous narcissism to create Ignatius Reilly. Many of his friends said that Ignatius had a lot of Toole in him as well.

The fact that the characters in the book are glowing eccentrics that Toole fashioned out of souls he had met over many years made it difficult for him to revise or put the project away. Gottlieb was encouraging him to write something else. But these were living creatures. Toole tried to please the editor during that prolonged carrot and stick agony- all of those hopes for publication and recognition. This undoubtedly led to the tragedy on that terrible day in 1969. That specific rejection, along with others he suffered in regard to the novel, led to a spiral of despair, drinking, as well as delusions of persecution. And Toole didn’t seem to have any significant other in his life to provide support; the women he dated all said that nothing beyond a good night kiss ever occurred. It’s generally accepted that he was gay, but if so, he was very private in that regard. There wasn’t anyone close, even though countless individuals loved him.

The disappointments mounted, and at one point, Toole had a particularly harsh argument with his mother. He got in his car and went on a surreal last drive, traversing the nation, even making a stop at the home of deceased Southern Gothic writer, Flannery O’Connor. The drive ended on a road that he had mysteriously pointed out to a friend years before, not giving any indication as to its significance. He picked this spot to fashion a hose to his exhaust pipe.

You have to wonder, though— how could a talent able to see all the excess and insanity in his fellow man go on for long without becoming slightly mad? In almost the manner that excess stimulation irritates and enrages those with autism, it would follow that a supernatural ability to notice all the little details about others might become painful. At first, Toole was able to turn that ability into a wildly humorous novel, but when that was ultimately rejected-what then? Did that talent start feeling like a useless curse? Toole was obviously channeling some awareness of details not noticed by others. How do you take anything seriously when it’s all uncovered before you? I’d say Toole’s method to navigate the world, that of using biting humor was lost in that smoggy realm of rejection. His coping mechanism was shredded. And it didn’t help that he was constantly worried about his aging parents and their lack of resources. He made sure to leave them with some life insurance and a bit of savings. And hideously, the car he killed himself in.

With humor and tragedy so closely related, it’s like watershed off a sharp knife. Events can fall towards absurdity and dark humor or simply be tragic, but the separation is small. A man like Toole surely felt the pull of both directions.

Well, how did the novel end up published?

Years after he died, his overbearing, outlandish mother found a handwritten and smudged up manuscript in her home. She put all of her energy into getting that book published. She faced rejection, just as he did, but when she found out that writer Walker Percy was going to be teaching at Loyola, she decided to go all out. Like a character in the novel, she pestered Percy frequently; it was even said that she enlisted a relative to pretend to be her driver when she went to meet him. Her theatrics and persistence made Percy decide to read a paragraph or two, hoping he could placate the old grieving eccentric. But that’s not how it turned out. He was astounded by the work, and decided to do all he could to get it published.

The novel was released in small numbers by the University press, and its fame grew. It rapidly gained word of mouth recommendation, eventually receiving that Pulitzer.

The raging humor of the thing has had Hollywood’s mouth watering for a few decades now. The thing is, there’s something of a curse. John Belushi wanted to play Ignatius and we know what happened to him. Then some idiots decided that just being fat would be enough to play the part- at different times John Candy and Chris Farley were approached. And we know what happened to them. The NOLA Film Commission coordinator involved with the project was murdered. They say that Will Farrell wants to play Ignatius in a fat suit. That idea is so patently hideous that I hope the curse kicks in quickly. It’s almost unimaginable- that a book that owes most of its greatness to wordplay and subtle details would ever lend itself to a movie screen. But I guess people always think that about their favorite books, and they are always right.

But don’t wait for a crappy movie with a guy in a fat suit. Go out and get yourself a copy of “A Confederacy of Dunces”. And don’t forget to appreciate that isolated, beautiful soul that left it behind for us.

Kathleen Peine writes out of the US Midwest and can be contacted at kathypeine@gmail.com or at the website paintedfire.org