Review of A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)


John Kennedy Toole (writer).

Read in 2024.

Dated to its posthumous first publication.

Ignatius J. Reilly has a master’s degree in medieval history. He loves On the Consolation of Philosophy (524), but lives in colourful 1960s New Orleans. A haughty monarchist, Reilly conceals his laziness and lechery behind his hypochondria and his obnoxious frontal assaults on modernity. One day he has to get a job.

A jolly novel about a stinking asshole and his foes. It’s funny in the wry way it looks at the city. The characters are comical in their simplicity and profound weakness, but only one of them—Reilly’s mother—is able to change. The depth of Reilly’s personal depravity is obvious from an early zoophilic masturbation scene, and that is pretty low.

Although Reilly rails against the culture of 1963, which was the time of writing, the novel is not really politically or culturally “conscious”. It has no agenda, caricaturing conservatism and progressivism with similar delight. Even so, as Tom Bissell noted in The New Yorker in 2021, there is both a hint of racism in Toole’s portrayal of Reilly, and a hint of prescience. In Burma Jones, another black character, Toole expresses an understanding of anti-black racism in the Jim Crow era and laments it, but when Reilly meets Jones, Reilly admonishes him for trying to succeed at all. Reilly’s dream is essentially to do nothing: To live on the dole and deliberately realize the stereotype of people of colour as lazy. Reilly dislikes Mark Twain, but Twain could have written a black man with the same ambition. At the same time, Reilly is an early model of the authoritarian NEET. His eccentricity and his ability to act on it remind me of Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman”. Like the young men of Trump’s alt-right 60 years later, Reilly likes Batman (1940) and tries to start a riot in the hope of one day crowning a king of the USA. Toole’s most impressive achievement is to package that paradox, where internal contradiction is a central feature, without contradicting himself.

References here: The Adventures of Mark Twain (1985).

text fiction