The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Louisiana State University Press, 338 pp. $12.95.
We speak of dialogue as being authentic, but we seldom know if it is. When Mark Twain claimed to have used four modified varieties of the “Pike County” dialect, or John O’Hara to have duplicated the speech patterns of eastern Pennsylvanians, or Ring Lardner to have caught the exact flavor of conversation around a ballpark, there weren’t many readers who could have checked up on them, and thirty years later nobody cared anyway. What we ask of dialogue is not that it be authentic but that it seem so, and that it be lively, colorful, and interesting. Good dialogue does not reproduce speech, but imitates it, especially its rhythms, in a kind of shorthand. When a beginning writer with a sharp memory tries to reproduce speech, it is inevitably windy, lifeless, and dull.
The question arises not just because John Kennedy Toole opens his book with an oblique claim for the authenticity of his dialogue, but also because, in the text of his novel, he has stepped squarely into the tradition of the great comic American writers of dialogue, Twain, Lardner, Raymond Chandler, O’Hara at times. Whatever its other excellences, A Confederacy of Dunces is most triumphantly a symphony of voices, a wonderfully wide range of authentic-sounding voices which would be distinctive even if they were never named. From Ignatius J. Reilly (“Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?”) to Irene Reilly (“Sweetheart, you wanna gimme two dozen of them fancy mix?”) to a black janitor named Jones (“The nex thing, a flo’ walk grabbin me, and then a police mother draggin me off. A man ain got a chance. Whoa!”), the characters in this novel define themselves by the way they speak and what they say. We hear the voices, and already we can see the conflict.
Ignatius Reilly is an immensely bloated, overgrown child of a man who lives in a New Orleans slum with his middle-class Catholic mother. He is a medievalist and a philosopher of sorts, a follower of Boethius, who said our human lot was misery. Ignatius seems determined to be as miserable as possible. Given the choice, he would never work, but would be content to pass his days gorging himself on sickeningly sweet cakes and a beverage called Dr. Nut, filling his notebooks with fragments of literary works that he never gets down to composing, watching television programs and attending movies so he can grow enraged at their tastelessness, and indulging in the sexual fantasies that enable him to masturbate with his miniature penis. He is an exaggeration of the sterile intellectual one does occasionally run into, especially around a university, who is blocked from primary satisfactions and retreats to secondary ones: he can complete no worthwhile work of his own so he criticizes that of others; he is afraid of sexual relationships but sees lasciviousness and perversion all around him; he does not, despite his obesity, enjoy good food, but eats inferior stuff. Ignatius sees himself as a martyr of sorts, stranded in a decadent and tasteless age when he really belongs in an earlier time. No doubt if he had lived in the Middle Ages he would have longed for ancient Egypt.
This is not to say that his judgments are wrong; often enough they are crashingly right, though a little extreme. The plot of the novel — what plot there is — begins to unfold when Mrs. Reilly is sued for damages after an automobile accident, and her little boy must go off to work, into a world where he is genuinely a misfit and is nearly unemployable. In his adventures with American capitalism he works for a firm named Levy Pants and tries to organize a race riot against them, becomes a street vendor of hot dogs, and gets enmeshed in a plot to conceal pornographic photographs. The novel is composed less of a plot than of a succession of memorable characters: the cynical proprietress of a sleazy New Orleans bar who is trying somehow to turn a profit; a bargirl who has ambitions as an exotic dancer and tries to work out a unique act by training a bird to strip her; a janitor, all sunglasses and smoke, whose main goal in life is to avoid being a “vagran no visible mean of support”; the Levy Pants owner’s wife, who seems to be sexually involved with her electric exercising board.
Small criticisms can be made. One might argue that the plot is implausible, in particular that the characters keep running into each other in incredible ways, but it seems apparent that Toole has composed a satire unbounded by the rules of realistic narration. More serious is the charge that the satire itself is monotonous, that after the first fifty pages it never says anything new. Similarly, the conclusion is weak, and rather open-ended; there seems as little reason to end there as anywhere else. What we really enjoy in the narrative is not its progression, but the brightly lit scenes, one after another. We wish they could go on and on.
As is true with many satires, there is a desperation and horror behind all the fun, a dark yawning unhappiness. There is much truth in what the narrator says about our institutions, but only a bleak misanthropy could have driven him to say it. The relationship between Ignatius and his mother also contains enough truth to make us uneasy; it conceals neurotic attachments, failure to express emotion, and a seething rage that, toward the end of the novel, begins to find expression. It is all very funny, and also not funny. Saddest of all are the facts of the novel’s publication, that it was written in the sixties and rejected, that its author subsequently committed suicide, that his mother many years later persuaded Walker Percy to read the tattered manuscript and arrange for its publication. There are uncomfortable correspondences between fiction and fact; Ignatius too was a writer who longed to publish and failed, and eventually debased himself by trying to express his philosophy in popular forms. Toole made no such concessions, but his work, despite its early rejection, has become wildly popular, and is in at least its fifth printing from a university press. Possibly it is always best to accept a work and forget its author, ignore the sad facts behind the fiction. Toole may have been crushed by the very forces of tastelessness that he so tellingly described, but his work managed to survive. That can seem little enough consolation for the loss of a life, but in this case, sadly, it will have to do.