More than a few critics, academics, scholars and just plain average book readers have declared a winner in the title of funniest novel ever written by an American author: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. This remarkable novel would likely have become one of the legendary efforts of American fiction even without its tragic real-life origin story of a determined mother hell-bent on getting her dead son’s masterpiece published following his suicide. Without doubt, what makes A Confederacy of Dunces one of the most truly enjoyable reading experiences available in the English language is the majesty of its most unforgettable character, Ignatius J. Reilly. While Fitzgerald ultimately felt the compunction to guide the reader to believing Gatsby is great by putting it right there in the title, Ignatius needs no such assistance. His greatness fairly leaps off every page on which he appears. Ignatius Reilly is an obese, intolerant, unemployed man-child still utterly dependent upon his mother despite being a 30-year-old scholar eternally at work scrawling “a lengthy indictment against century in longhand on elementary school lined paper. The ostentatious presence of Ignatius is so commanding that his presence lingers over those scenes in which he does not even appear. What may be surprising to many who are only familiar with A Confederacy of Dunces as a result of the legendary status attained by Ignatius is that a considerable number of scenes in the book do not feature Ignatius in any but that hovering presence of personality.
The bulk of A Confederacy of Dunces—as well as most its most memorably funny incidents—revolve around the jobs which Ignatius is forced to take as a result of a car accident which takes place quite early on. John Kennedy Toole’s legend rests primarily upon his almost preternatural ability to crawl inside the mind of a genuinely unique literary creation like Ignatius and make his perspective toward society that is unquestionably non-conformist, but very often treads upon thin ice of insanity seem endearing if not downright preferable.
As remarkably unforgettable as Ignatius J. Reilly is, however—and no one who ever picks up his story ever stops much less forget him—what may be Toole’s true sign of being a genius is that his modern day Quixote is far from the whole story of A Confederacy of Dunces. Intertwined throughout the story of Ignatius being forced out into the real world are a collection of oddball characters who would themselves be the single greatest creation of a lesser talent. What is truly exhilarating and downright inconceivable is that Toole manages not only to create a gallery of characters worthy of becoming part of Ignatius’ larger narrative, but he manages to link them together in a way that never seems forced and works inexorably toward a satisfying climax in which each of the main supporting characters gets to where Toole needs him (or her) to be without veering from their established patterns of behavior.
Throughout the pages of Ignatius’s laugh-out-loud journal entries and his particularly incisive view of Doris Day movies, the reader is gradually brought into the distinctive individual yet collectively New Orleans milieu of characters as disparate as Ignatius’ put-upon dipsomaniac mother and the owner of a strip club whose kinkiness is equaled only by her genius for grasping the fundamental elements of pure, unrestricted capitalism. Then there is sweet Darlene the stripper-wannabe who dreams of training a cockatoo to remove her clothes on stage with a naiveté that is in some odd way matched the far different obsession of Claude, an old man Mrs. Reilly would not mind dating if only he weren’t so obsessed with seeing a communiss on every corner. Fortunately, her good friend Santa has the perfect advice: “Once Claude gets married,he’ll stop thinking about them communiss.”
Two of the most striking characters in the novel never actually cross paths except by virtue of both coming into contact with the force of nature that is Ignatius. A man of Ignatius’ prodigious singularity could never be expected to have a girlfiend in the normal sense and on that score, Myrna Minkoff is every his equal. Ignatius has a mind which finds the Middle Ages to be the apex of human intellect and as a result pursues a life of celibacy except for far-from-occasional experimentations with self-love. (On that score, he turns out to have more in common with Lana Lee). As for this unique girlfriend who spends nearly the entire book existing only in the form of letters: “Myrna’s cure-all for everything from fallen arches to depression was sex.” One could not get much farther away from Myrna than Burma Jones who also seems to have little in common with Ignatius until it becomes evidence that the jive-talking Negro perpetually hidden behind sunglasses and cigarette smoke is in pretty much exactly the same predicament as the big white man himself: he must finally break down and get a job in order to avoid serving time in jail. And just as one of Ignatius’ most memorable attempts at entering the workforce ends in a spectacular failure to rise up against oppressors, so is Jones sly biding his time for his own small effort at insurrection: “You cain scare color peoples no more. I got me some peoples form a human chain in front your door, drive away your business, get you on the TV news. Color peoples took enough horseshit already, and for twenty dollar a week you ain piling no more on. I getting pretty tire of bein vagran or workin below the minimal wage. Get somebody else run your erran.”
Ignatius alone would make A Confederacy of Dunces worth reading. Add in the collection of supporting players mentioned above and it is impossible to keep it from becoming a recognized masterpiece. And yet there are still two more characters without whom the novel would suffer considerably. One is a decidedly major character, Patrol Mancuso whose continuing efforts to prove his worth to his captain make him an essential thread that ties all the other characters into the narrative of Ignatius. The other is Miss Trixie who appears all-too-briefly in the extended episode culminating in the humiliation of Ignatius as an emancipator of the oppressed working class.
A Confederacy of Dunces succeeds not just as an example of how to create a legendary protagonist, but also as a consummate example of how to create supporting characters who are instrumental in the construction of that legend. What reader of this extraordinary tale can ever forget Ignatius, of course, but it is well worth asking how many readers have ever forgotten Miss Trixie, longtime employee at Levy Pants who wants nothing more than to be able to retire. As large as Ignatius looms in the pantheon of great American literary heroes, without the little touches of the dunces forming in confederation around him like Miss Trixie’s unfathomably hilarious propensity for referring to him as “Gomez” the humor of Ignatius J. Reilly would suffer in ways it is best not even to contemplate.