John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces

January 5, 2020

91aWrryfkIL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I first came across this novel (and its author’s tragic story – unable to find a publisher, he killed himself) over thirty years ago: it was the funniest thing I’d ever read way back then, every time since, and it still is. It has me laughing out loud helplessly…

How to describe it? Set in downtown New Orleans and featuring a cast of total misfit characters, it’s centred on Aloysius, an unemployable overweight ex-student with a troublesome stomach valve, crackpot fantasies of how life was better in mediaeval times, an equally crazed (and sex-crazed) long-distance girlfriend who’s into hopeless leftwing causes, his alcoholic mother who is determined to get Aloysius either gainfully employed or else into the local asylum, an utterly useless policeman and the owner of a clip joint and her employees. This collection of oddballs and crazies means it’s mayhem all the way. During the course of the novel, Aloysius has two jobs, first in a rundown pants factory which he helps to run further into the ground, and then as a hotdog vendor, who eats most of his own merchandise.

What makes the book so funny for me is Toole’s astonishing ear for dialogue and local accent which often drifts a stream of consciousness effect and creates much of the humour. Burma Jones, the black floor-sweeper in the night-club and token oppressed minority representative, is particularly good through his dry, laconic utterances. Then there are the utterly outrageous scenes Toole engineers using his cast of characters and having them run into each other in totally implausible coincidences.

It’s definitely a book of its time (it was written in the sixties) and I fear that some of his characters and situations may well be deemed objectionable by some of today’s more PC readers, and although I was aware of this possibility as I re-read the novel for the fourth time, I nevertheless noted that Toole’s humour was never malicious towards his poor, disabled, gay or black characters. On the contrary, he manages to engage his readers’ sympathy for all of them and their predicaments, while making us laugh at their antics at the same time.

It is a work of genius, I have always felt; it’s probably also something of a boy’s book…

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