Dunces Aplenty

“A Confederacy of Dunces” was published posthumously in 1980, eleven years after the suicide the author, John Kennedy Toole, who was distraught at the rejection of his novel by Simon and Schuster. The novel won him a Pulitzer in 1981. It is easy to see why as the protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is unique in literature. A fabulist, glutton and prurient sloth, he engenders havoc wherever he goes. His obsession is his pyloric valve which, when failing, prompts eructations (belches) that are disruptive to his world view which is guided by geometry and theology.

Reilly has few peers as far as I can tell. Furthermore, his character reflects contemporary America in myriad forms. His self righteousness is worthy of contemporary political commentary let alone a reflection of some of the worst aspects of mid-20th century America such as Sen. Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the House on Un-American Activity Committee (HUAC) to name just one. Reilly is such a malleable malefactor that you almost feel sorry for him—but not quite.

The title of the book is a partial quote of an epigraph from Jonathan Swift’s, “Thoughts on Various Subjects: Moral and Diverting”, the full quote reading, “When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him.” Oddly, I could not help but think about Swift as I read Toole even though I did not know the source of the title. The genius here is, of course, John Kennedy Toole.

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