Page Turners

The Intricate Punchline of A Confederacy of Dunces


Hey, have you ever heard of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon? It’s a weird thing that the human brain does in relation to pattern recognition where when you hear about something for the first time, there’s a chance that you’ll suddenly hear about it everywhere. In actuality the thing has probably been discussed around you all the time, but you just kind of tuned it out, and once you’ve learned about the thing, it suddenly seems like some sort of cosmic sign, because now everyone’s talking about it. It’s just a hiccup in our brains, similar to deja vu, but it’s still a very effecting thing that can happen to you. And why am I talking about this? Well, because today I’m writing about one of my favorite novels of all time, which I’ve recently re-read, and my experience with John Kennedy Toole’s wonderful story A Confederacy of Dunces took a very Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. I first heard about the book in a college creative writing class when my professor recommended I check it out, since my writing reminded her of similar sensibilities. I wrote the recommendation down, but didn’t think much about it. Until he next day when I came across an article from Cracked that listed it as a story that Hollywood has tried to make into a movie unsuccessfully for years. And in that article the author lists it as possibly the funniest book ever written. So with two glowing recommendations I decided to go check out the novel, and headed to a great indie bookstore in downtown Denver called the Tattered Cover to pick it up. On the light-rail downtown I happened to open a physical copy of the Onion (remember those!?) and it just so happened to have an article in the AV Club section about how much they loved A Confederacy of Dunces. So that was weird. I then got to the bookstore, and found a table with the book sitting basically in front of the entrance, labelled as a staff-favorite with some glowing recommendations from the employees, encouraging customers to buy the book and meet Ignatius J Reilly. Does any of that have to do with anything? Not really, but besides the fact that this is legitimately one of the funniest books ever written, that weird little backstory I’ve had with this book has helped cement it as possibly my favorite book of all time, giving me a unique relationship with it, despite the fact that it’s just a strange phenomenon in my brain.

But none of that really matters. What does matter is the fact that A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the most enjoyable novels ever written. Released posthumously after author John Kennedy Toole’s suicide, the novel is a massively detailed and sprawling story about New Orleans in the early 1960’s. There’s dozens of characters in the novel, and basically every single person that we comes across is going to inevitably be given a name, a backstory, and a distinct personality, completely creating a lived-in world. But the focal point of the novel, the center of gravity that drags all the oddball character into interaction is Ignatius J Reilly. Ignatius is a fascinating character, and one of the least likable protagonists of all time. I feel like Ignatius and his personality was meant to be satire when Toole wrote him, however, similarly to how the film Network was made to be an over-the-top satire about media that they thought would never come to pass, and now seems like a welcome relief to the reality of Fox News, Ignatius does seem like a person that you’d see on the internet right now. He’s loud, voracious, opinionated, doesn’t care about other people’s feelings, and thinks he’s the smartest person in the world despite having had almost no actual life experiences himself. He’s kind of everything that Baby Boomers erroneously believe about Millennials. But you don’t always need a likable protagonist to carry a novel, especially when it’s as well-written and hilarious as A Confederacy of Dunces. 

The novel follows Ignatius as his world is turned upside down after his mother gets in a drunken car-crash. They’re physically fine, but she caused some property damage that will have to be payed. Ignatius and his mother Irene have been surviving off Irene’s late husband’s pension, and will be unable to pay off the damages, which means that at 30 years old Ignatius is going to have to get his first job. He heads out into New Orleans, and ends up getting a filing job at a failing company that designs and manufactures trousers, until he ends up getting fired for staging an employee revolution against the mild-mannered office manager. After which he has no choice but to become a hot-dog vendor, wandering around the French Quarter dressed as a pirate trying to hock wieners while doing his best not to eat his entire supply. And along the way he ends up meeting the thriving gay community in the Quarter, and tries to organize them into a political party that he thinks can bring about world peace.

But this isn’t just Ignatius’ story. He’s just a catalyst. Because every single person that Ignatius encounters during his quest to get a job ends up becoming a character in the novel, and we slowly begin to learn all of their stories, and get thrown into their world. We see Irene befriend that aunt of a policeman who tried to arrest Ignatius for vagrancy, and then start a romantic relationship with an older man who argues with Ignatius. When he and his mother visit a bar we begin learning all about the cruel woman who runs it, her struggling employees who are plotting her downfall, and the pornography ring that she’s running with a teenaged accomplice. Well after Ignatius is fired from the pants factory we continue checking in on the office manger, the old woman who sort of works there, and the lay-about owner of the factory who ends up getting thrown into economic turmoil after Ignatius alienates his best customer. We learn about Ignatius’ college professors. We learn about his nemesis, a woman named Myrna who is just as unpleasant as him, and who seems to be in a competition with Ignatius to see who can annoy the most people. And all of these characters begins bouncing off each other, all of their lives and plans being more or less ruined when they come into contact with Ignatius. He’s a destructive force, moving through New Orleans and setting off chain reactions as he travels around. Some plots take a long time to fester, and others pop off rather quickly, but by the end of the novel more than a dozen characters are all suddenly thrown together, all having been slighted by Ignatius, crashing together into a madcap and hilarious climax.

It’s actually very difficult to describe A Confederacy of Dunces. When you look at the plot description, and learn that it’s about the worst dude you’ve ever met in your life trying and failing to get a job, it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be particularly interesting. But you’d be wrong. It’s a novel you have to experience to believe. It’s a tragedy that John Kennedy Toole committed suicide before this book was released, because he clearly was a master author, and was able to craft one of the most tightly produced, hilarious, and believable novels I’ve ever read. It’s kind of unbelievable that Toole was able to create so many perfectly realized characters, who just keep coming back. You kind of assume that this is Ignatius’ story, and when the story starts peeking back in on the people of bar, you don’t realize that we’re going to be learning more and more about them. By the end of the novel Ignatius practically becomes a side-character, because we’re spending so much time with all of the other people wandering around the Quarter. And it all comes together in one of the most satisfying climaxes of any novel. Everything pays off, dozens of characters begin interacting with each other, and they’re all after Ignatius for the various legal and social crimes that he’s committed over the course of the novel. A Confederacy of Dunces is the type of story that I have to assume was written by having dozens of scraps of paper tacked to a wall with string connecting them, because this is one of the most intricate stories I’ve ever read. And it comes off as effortless. You never get dragged down with how complicated the story is, and you don’t feel lost while navigating the sea of characters and locations we’re given. Everyone is so perfectly written, with their own distinct personalities, methods of speech, and opinions that you really do feel like you’re thrown into a fully lived-in world. It’s kind of miraculous. A lesser author would have crashed and burned trying to write a story like this. So I highly recommend that you give this novel a chance, because you may click with it in such a profound way as I have, and it could become your favorite novel.


A Confederacy of Dunces was written by John Kennedy Toole, 1980.


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