Have you ever read a book that made you laugh out loud? How about a book that made you laugh out loud more than once or twice? Okay, then, how about a book that makes you laugh out loud from the beginning to the end?
The funniest book ever written has got to be A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. A Confederacy of Dunces would be a legendary novel even if its author hadn’t committed suicide, thereby creating the real-life amazing story of a determined mother hell-bent on getting her dead son’s masterpiece published. While A Confederacy of Dunces has also earned its place in Hollywood history by being perhaps the most famous unfilmed script of the last twenty years, the story of how John Kennedy Toole’s mother got it published-eventually earning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction-would make an equally fascinating film. Certainly more so than Mission Impossible III, or X-Men III, or Lord of the Rings III.
What makes A Confederacy of Dunces the funniest book ever written is, primarily, its main character. Ignatius J. Reilly is the most unforgettable character in recent American literature, and I go so far as to say that he’s the most unforgettable character in all of American literature history. (He’s certainly more interesting than Jay Gatsby, who officially received that honor a few years ago from Book Magazine. Amazingly, Ignatius only managed to rank number 17 in that poll. WTF where they thinking!!!) Bloated beyond all reason both physically and egoistically, Ignatius has withdrawn from the modern world, which in this case is New Orleans in the late 50s/early 60s. Ignatius Reilly is an obese, opinionated, unemployed man who still lives with his mother and is completely out of touch with the world. Ignatius Reilly is also a college graduate whose philosophical worldview is based upon the medieval writings of Boethius. According to Ignatius, the world lost its way sometime around the Renaissance has been sliding down a slippery slope ever since.
A Confederacy of Dunces opens, not coincidentally, with Ignatius sitting under the huge that stood outside the famous D.H. Holmes department store in New Orleans at the time. Almost from page one, Ignatius seems incapable of avoiding trouble as he is nearly arrested outside the department store while wearing his trademark hunting cap with the earflaps. The near-arrest launches a string of events that culminate with his mother crashing their car. Because of money problems, Ignatius Reilly is forced to do something that is just as harmful for society as it is anathema for him: get a job. Ignatius engages in a series of events that somehow manage to be both laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely sad at the same time. The bulk of A Confederacy of Dunces details the incidents involved in those jobs that Ignatius is forced to take and the series of hilarious episodes that ensue; pointing out just how incredibly out of step he is with the world. (Not that that’s a bad thing, understand.) Both disgusted by what he sees and irresistibly attracted to it, Ignatius stands an exemplar of the conservative self-designated moral compass with feet of clay that are currently running America today. Fortunately, Ignatius has deeper levels than any of those guys, as well as being much funnier.
The first job that Ignatius J. Reilly takes is in the office of Levy Pants and, as only Ignatius could manage, it takes shockingly little time before he is leading the company’s black factory workers in a revolt against their oppressive overseer, the eminently pleasant Mr. Gonzalez. It is during his adventures at Levy Pants that we are first awarded our peek inside Ignatius’ Journal of a Working Boy, which details in purple prose that a kind of endearing obliviousness that is missing from Pres. Bush as he writes down his version of events, along with letters to the Gotham minx, Myrna Minkoff. Myrna is a leftist of sorts, politically, socially and sexually at odds with Ignatius, yet just as out of touch with reality as Ignatius in her own way.
After getting sacked from Levy Pants, Ignatius gets a job as a hot dog vendor. If that very idea doesn’t make you smile, consider that he must do this job while dressed up as a pirate. The adventures of Ignatius Reilly, pirate hot dog vendor, leads him to a pornography ring, and an attempt to start a revolution with an army of homosexuals. (Don’t ask. You really do have to read the novel to follow how this line of events takes place.)
As unforgettable a character as Ignatius J. Reilly is, however, he’s not the whole story of A Confederacy of Dunces. Weaved throughout the pages of Ignatius’s laugh-out-loud journal entries and his particularly incisive view of Doris Day movies, the reader is also treated to almost equally unique characters such as Ignatius’ incredible mother, and her friend Santa and their unique relationship with Claude, the communiss-hater. Even more interesting is the subplot involving pornography queenpin and bar owner Lana Lee, the stripper with a heart of gold, brains of steel, and plans for her parrot that you simply have to read to believe, Darlene, and, of course, the equally unforgettable black bar sweep Jones, who has one of his sunglasses-covered eyes on Lana, and the other on Ignatius and who plays a vital role in making sure the paths of these two cross to create a climax in the Night of Joy bar unlike anything ever seen on Cheers.
A Confederacy of Dunces also exceeds as a unparalleled lesson in how to create minor characters. What reader of this amazing novel will ever forget Miss Trixie, longtime employee at Levy Pants who wants nothing more than to be able to retire, or Mrs. Levy, who in between workouts plots to keep Miss Trixie happy and her husband miserable by making sure Miss Trixie continues at Levy Pants despite being well into the middle stages of dementia. Oh, and then there’s Patrolman Mancuso and his ever-changing disguises seen through by everyone else in New Orleans. The city of New Orleans is also a living, breathing character in this novel, but not as a convenient setting against which to place the events. In fact, except for D.H. Holmes, very few actual landmarks are ever mentioned, but the spirit of this unique city permeates every scene, and the dialogue is written at times in the peculiar dialect spoken by natives to nowhere else in America.
Tying it all together, of course, is Ignatius. Ignatius J. Reilly quite obviously could be misconstrued as a nut, a loser, or even a psycho. Although I disagree with his philosophy on several points-I simply have trouble admitting that the world attained perfection during the Middle Ages, and that society would benefit by a return to monarchy (the last five years have disproved that theory, haven’t they?)-I must admit I am becoming somewhat less than willing to question his belief that the average human isn’t quite intelligent enough to allow for democratic principles of self-rule. On the whole, however, I prefer to look at Ignatius in a better light than most might be tempted to do. Yes, Ignatius is lazy, and yes is profoundly self-centered-he’s quite willing to let his elderly mother do everything for him while he watches TV-but what is most admirable about Ignatius is refusal to give in to mindless conformity.
We currently live in a time and a society in which nonconformity is usually confused with fashion choice. Ignatius J. Reilly, however, is a true nonconformist; a genuine rebel. While his rebelliousness does partake of a certain fashion statement, that fashion statement is hardly trendy. Indeed, one might instead say that Ignatius’ fashion rebellion is rather anti-fashion, built upon comfort rather than style. But beyond that, Ignatius is a rebel in the best and truest sense of the word in that he steadfastly refuses to accept anything that doesn’t correspond with his philosophy.
All too often in literature and film, the rebel is presented as the cool, good-looking guy who doesn’t seem to care about anything until he stands to lose something. And he also dresses really nicely. The great thing about Ignatius is that he isn’t good-looking and from the opening pages of the novel it’s clear that he deeply cares about many things. He’s passionate and committed and the whole concept of “cool” is probably something that he couldn’t even fathom existing. What passes as the rebel in most works of art of the twentieth-century is really nothing but a character who is afraid to express an opinion because of the possibility that that opinion will expose him for what he really is, whatever that might be.
It would be incredibly difficult to admire a person like Ignatius J. Reilly in real life, but there truly is something endearing, even admirable, about him. His intelligence is astounding, even if he cannot quite find a way to translate it into concrete results. And that may be what is so admirable. Ignatius may be one of the last characters in American literature who consciously chooses NOT to make a name for himself by selling something. He is a consumer of food and ideas, not fashions. Ignatius is comfortable with himself and not at all influenced by the current vogues. In that way, Ignatius truly is admirable. But even more importantly, he is a character who provides more laughs per page than any other character in American literature. A Confederacy of Dunces is much more than the funniest book ever written. But above all else, it is that.