5.0 out of 5 stars
The Best Comic Novel ... ever?, Jun 3 2005
"A Confederacy of Dunces" is not for all tastes, but it is perhaps the funniest book I have ever read. It is a novel that, for me, periodically prompts literally uncontrollable laughter, and which grows even funnier with each reading.
The plot, which serves primarily as a frame supporting a series of astonishingly inventive and humorous set-pieces, centers around the conflicted sexual and intellectual life of Ignatius Reilly, a self-important, bloated medieval scholar living in 1960s New Orleans, and his unsuccessful attempts (at his mother's urging) to find a job suitable to a man of his unique skills. Each job -- highlights are his stints as an employee of a near-bankrupt pants company and a hot dog salesman -- descends into a disaster of epic proportions. Ignatius lives with his mother on Constantinople Street in Uptown New Orleans, where he spends long hours obsessing about his digestive difficulties and and dutifully reporting his travails in a series of Big Chief tablets, which contain what he believes to be his definitive examination of the collapse of civilization in the modern age.
The success of the comedy is based in large part upon Toole's ability to induce the reader to accept the world he creates on its own terms. And what a world it is. Each character is, as in every farce, in some sense a caricature, but a fully realized one. Each is ridiculous, but is not treated with contempt by the author; each is a failure but emerges from the depths of the comedic darkness to achieve a certain tragic nobility. Even Ignatius, a character who, if actually encountered, would be more offensive (although not evil) than could be imagined, emerges as a twisted Don Quixote, admirably fighting the windmills of modernity with his boorish behavior. Toole also captures the lunacy of life in New Orleans as it is rarely shown in novels and films of the shallow, stereotypical "Big Easy" variety: its innumerable quirks, ethnic groups, neighborhoods and accents are depicted in lush detail with only slight exaggeration. Any person visiting New Orleans after reading "A Confederacy of Dunces" cannot help but smile when he or she first catches sight of a Lucky Dog stand in the French Quarter.
I base the qualification in my introduction that "Confederacy" is not for all tastes upon the reactions of some to whom I have recommended it. It is a book that one either loves or hates, and it is certainly hated by some. It has flaws, to be sure: certain scenes go on far too long, some diversions are unsuccessful, and Toole is unable to sustain the comic fervor through to the ending, which falls somewhat flat. However, I know of no comedic novel that can compete toe to toe with the scenes that hit the mark. And there are more of those than I can count. At the risk of being obnoxious, I need to recommend another wonderful comic novel -- a recent discovery I made on Amazon -- "The Losers' Club (Complete Restored Edition)" by Richard Perez. Another novel people seem to love or hate, but exceptional in its own twisted, soulful way.