A Confederacy of Duncesby John Kennedy Toole
“A masterwork . . . the novel astonishes with its inventiveness . . . it is nothing less than a grand comic fugue.” –The New York Times Book Review
“When a true genius appears in the world,
You may know him by this sign, that the dunces
Are all in confederacy against him.”
–Jonathan Swift, “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once.”
So enters one of the most memorable characters in American fiction, Ignatius J. Reilly. John Kennedy Toole’s hero is one, “huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter. His story bursts with wholly original characters, denizens of New Orleans’ lower depths, incredibly true-to-life dialogue, and the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures’ (Henry Kisor, Chicago Sun-Times).
Ignatius J. Reilly is a flatulent frustrated scholar deeply learned in Medieval philosophy and American junk food, a brainy mammoth misfit imprisoned in a trashy world of Greyhound Buses and Doris Day movies. He is in violent revolt against the entire modern age. Ignatius’ peripatetic employment takes him from Levy Pants, where he leads a workers’ revolt, to the French Quarter, where he waddles behind a hot dog wagon that serves as his fortress.
A Confederacy of Dunces is an American comic masterpiece that outswifts Swift, whose poem gives the book its title. Set in New Orleans, the novel bursts into life on Canal Street under the clock at D. H. Holmes department store. The characters leave the city and literature forever marked by their presences–Ignatius and his mother; Mrs. Reilly’s matchmaking friend, Santa Battaglia; Miss Trixie, the octogenarian assistant accountant at Levy Pants; inept, bemused Patrolman Mancuso; Jones, the jivecat in spaceage dark glasses. Juvenal, Rabelais, Cervantes, Fielding, Swift, Dickens–their spirits are all here. Filled with unforgettable characters and unbelievable plot twists, shimmering with intelligence, and dazzling in its originality, Toole’s comic classic just keeps getting better year after year.
Released by Louisiana State University Press in April 1980 and published in paperback in 1981 by Grove Press, A Confederacy of Dunces is nothing short of a publishing phenomenon. Turned down by countless publishers and submitted by the author’s mother years after his suicide, the book won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Today, there are over 1,500,000 copies in print worldwide in eighteen languages.
“A masterwork . . . the novel astonishes with its inventiveness . . . it is nothing less than a grand comic fugue.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A corker, an epic comedy, a rumbling, roaring avalanche of a book.” –The Washington Post
“An astonishingly good novel, radiant with intelligence and artful high comedy.” –Newsweek
“One of the funniest books ever written . . . it will make you laugh out loud till your belly aches and your eyes water.” –The New Republic
“The episodes explode one after the other like fireworks on a stormy night. No doubt about it, this book is destined to become a classic.” –The Baltimore Sun
“The dialogue is superbly mad. You simply sweep along, unbelievably entranced.” –The Boston Globe
“An astonishingly original and assured comic spree.” –New York Magazine
“If you gather a big enough group of bookish adults, you’ll find some agreement on two subjects. 1) The world still contains too few funny novels.
2) One of the funniest is A Confederacy of Dunces. [It] is an immensely entertaining novel of substance.” –Karen Sandstrom, The Plain Dealer
“As hilarious as it indisputably is, A Confederacy of Dunces is a serious and important work.” –Los Angeles Herald Examiner
“If a book’s price is measured against the laughs it provokes, A Confederacy of Dunces is the bargain of the year.” –Time
“A brilliant and evocative novel.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“I found myself laughing out loud again and again as I read this ribald book.” –Christian Science Monitor
“A magisterial work of character and twisting subplots, the story of Ignatius J. Reilly is a painfully rendered tale–the best of comedy and tragedy. That the author didn’t live to see its success makes it all the more poignant.” –A Best Book Chosen by author Sally Denton, The Week Magazine
“You’ll be hooked, rolling on the floor laughing at the antics of main character Ignatius Reilly, an intellectual deadbeat goof-off and all his misadventures in New Orleans. . . . This book has a Pulitzer to back up my claims of greatness.” –Susan Reinhardt, Gainsville Times
“Crazy magnificent once-in-a-blue-moon first novel. . . . There is a touch of genius about Toole and what he has created.” –Publishers Weekly
“A masterpiece of character comedy . . . brilliant, relentless, delicious, perhaps even classic.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Astonishing, extravagant, lunatic, satiric, and peculiar, but it is above all genuine, skillful, and unsentimentally comic.” –Booklist
“Ignatius J. Reilly is an overly intelligent, obese, and more than eccentric recluse whose few excursions out from his bedroom and into the real world serve as a catalyst for the comedy that ensues. This novel will prompt discussions about the complex character motivations and relationships and the author’s real-life suicide in 1969.” –Kyle McAfee, Fact & Fiction,
Ignatius J. Reilly is Bette Midler’s favorite hero of fiction (Vanity Fair, August 2008)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
A Best Book Chosen by Sally Denton for The Week Magazine
Selected by David Chang, Chef,
A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.
Ignatius himself was dressed comfortably and sensibly. The hunting cap prevented head colds. The voluminous tweed trousers were durable and permitted unusually free locomotion.
Their pleats and nooks contained pockets of warm, stale air that soothed Ignatius. The plaid flannel shirt made a jacket unnecessary while the muffler guarded exposed Reilly skin between earflap and collar. The outfit was acceptable by any theological and geometrical standards, however abstruse, and suggested a rich inner life.
Shifting from one hip to the other in his lumbering, elephantine fashion, Ignatius sent waves of flesh rippling beneath the tweed and flannel, waves that broke upon buttons and seams. Thus rearranged, he contemplated the long while that he had been waiting for his mother. Principally he considered the discomfort he was beginning to feel. It seemed as if his whole being was ready to burst from his swollen suede desert boots, and, as if to verify this, Ignatius turned his singular eyes toward his feet. The feet did indeed look swollen. He was prepared to offer the sight of those bulging boots to his mother as evidence of her thoughtlessness. Looking up, he saw the sun beginning to descend over the Mississippi at the foot of Canal Street. The Holmes clock said almost five. Already he was polishing a few carefully worded accusations designed to reduce his mother to repentance or, at least, confusion. He often had to keep her in her place.
She had driven him downtown in the old Plymouth, and while she was at the doctor’s seeing about her arthritis, Ignatius had bought some sheet music at Werlein’s for his trumpet and a new string for his lute. Then he had wandered into the Penny Arcade on Royal Street to see whether any new games had been installed. He had been disappointed to find the miniature mechanical baseball game gone. Perhaps it was only being repaired. The last time that he had played it the batter would not work and, after some argument, the management had returned his nickel, even though the Penny Arcade people had been base enough to suggest that Ignatius had himself broken the baseball machine by kicking it.
Concentrating upon the fate of the miniature baseball machine, Ignatius detached his being from the physical reality of Canal Street and the people around him and therefore did not notice the two eyes that were hungrily watching him from behind one of D. H. Holmes’ pillars, two sad eyes shining with hope and desire.
Was it possible to repair the machine in New Orleans? Probably so. However, it might have to be sent to someplace like Milwaukee or Chicago or some other city whose name Ignatius associated with efficient repair shops and permanently smoking factories. Ignatius hoped that the baseball game was being carefully handled in shipment, that none of its little players was being chipped or maimed by brutal railroad employees determined to ruin the railroad forever with damage claims from shippers, railroad employees who would subsequently go on strike and destroy the Illinois Central.
As Ignatius was considering the delight which the little baseball game afforded humanity, the two sad and covetous eyes moved toward him through the crowd like torpedoes zeroing in on a great woolly tanker. The policeman plucked at Ignatius’ bag of sheet music.
“You got any identification, mister?” the policeman asked in a voice that hoped that Ignatius was officially unidentified.
“What?” Ignatius looked down upon the badge on the blue cap. “Who are you?”
“Let me see your driver’s license.”
“I don’t drive. Will you kindly go away? I am waiting for my mother.”
“What’s this hanging out your bag?”
“What do you think it is, stupid? It’s a string for my lute.”
“What’s that?” The policeman drew back a little. “Are you local?”
“Is it the part of the police department to harass me when this city is a flagrant vice capital of the civilized world?” Ignatius bellowed over the crowd in front of the store. “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, Antichrists, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. If you have a moment, I shall endeavor to discuss the crime problem with you, but don’t make the mistake of bothering me.”
The policeman grabbed Ignatius by the arm and was struck on his cap with the sheet music. The dangling lute string whipped him on the ear.
“Hey,” the policeman said.
“Take that!” Ignatius cried, noticing that a circle of interested shoppers was beginning to form.
Inside D. H. Holmes, Mrs. Reilly was in the bakery department pressing her maternal breast against a glass case of macaroons. With one of her fingers, chafed from many years of scrubbing her son’s mammoth, yellowed drawers, she tapped on the glass case to attract the saleslady.
“Oh, Miss Inez,” Mrs. Reilly called in that accent that occurs south of New Jersey only in New Orleans, that Hoboken near the Gulf of Mexico. “Over here, babe.”
“Hey, how you making?” Miss Inez asked. “How you feeling, darling?”
“Not so hot,” Mrs. Reilly answered truthfully.
“Ain’t that a shame.” Miss Inez leaned over the glass case and forgot about her cakes. “I don’t feel so hot myself. It’s my feet.”
“Lord, I wisht I was that lucky. I got arthuritis in my elbow.”
“Aw, no!” Miss Inez said with genuine sympathy. ‘my poor old poppa’s got that. We make him go set himself in a hot tub fulla berling water.”
‘my boy’s floating around in our tub all day long. I can’t hardly get in my own bathroom no more.”
“I thought he was married, precious.”
“Ignatius? Eh, la la,” Mrs. Reilly said sadly. ‘sweetheart, you wanna gimme two dozen of them fancy mix?”
“But I thought you told me he was married,” Miss Inez said while she was putting the cakes in a box.
“He ain’t even got him a prospect. The little girlfriend he had flew the coop.”
“Well, he’s got time.”
“I guess so,” Mrs. Reilly said disinterestedly. “Look, you wanna gimme half a dozen wine cakes, too? Ignatius gets nasty if we run outta cake.”
“Your boy likes his cake, huh?”
“Oh, Lord, my elbow’s killing me,” Mrs. Reilly answered.
In the center of the crowd that had formed before the department store the hunting cap, the green radius of the circle of people, was bobbing about violently.
“I shall contact the mayor,” Ignatius was shouting.
“Let the boy alone,” a voice said from the crowd.
“Go get the strippers on Bourbon Street,” an old man added. “He’s a good boy. He’s waiting for his momma.”
“Thank you,” Ignatius said haughtily. “I hope that all of you will bear witness to this outrage.”
“You come with me,” the policeman said to Ignatius with waning self-confidence. The crowd was turning into something of a mob, and there was no traffic patrolman in sight. “We’re going to the precinct.”
“A good boy can’t even wait for his momma by D. H. Holmes.” It was the old man again. “I’m telling you, the city was never like this. It’s the communiss.”
“Are you calling me a communiss?” the policeman asked the old man while he tried to avoid the lashing of the lute string. “I’ll take you in, too. You better watch out who you calling a communiss.”
“You can’t arress me,” the old man cried. “I’m a member of the Golden Age Club sponsored by the New Orleans Recreation Department.”
“Let that old man alone, you dirty cop,” a woman screamed. “He’s prolly somebody’s grampaw.”
“I am,” the old man said. “I got six granchirren all studying with the sisters. Smart, too.”
Over the heads of the people Ignatius saw his mother walking slowly out of the lobby of the department store carrying the bakery products as if they were boxes of cement.
‘mother!” he called. “Not a moment too soon. I’ve been seized.”
Pushing through the people, Mrs. Reilly said, “Ignatius! What’s going on here? What you done now? Hey, take your hands off my boy.”
“I’m not touching him, lady,” the policeman said. “Is this here your son?”
Mrs. Reilly snatched the whizzing lute string from Ignatius.
“Of course I’m her child,” Ignatius said. “Can’t you see her affection for me?”
‘she loves her boy,” the old man said.
“What you trying to do my poor child?” Mrs. Reilly asked the policeman. Ignatius patted his mother’s hennaed hair with one of his huge paws. “You got plenty business picking on poor chirren with all the kind of people they got running in this town. Waiting for his momma and they try to arrest him.”
“This is clearly a case for the Civil Liberties Union,” Ignatius observed, squeezing his mother’s drooping shoulder with the paw. “We must contact Myrna Minkoff, my lost love. She knows about those things.”
“It’s the communiss,” the old man interrupted.
“How old is he?” the policeman asked Mrs. Reilly.
“I am thirty,” Ignatius said condescendingly.
“You got a job?”
“Ignatius hasta help me at home,” Mrs. Reilly said. Her initial courage was failing a little, and she began to twist the lute string with the cord on the cake boxes. “I got terrible arthuritis.”
“I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman. “In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
“Ignatius makes delicious cheese dips,” Mrs. Reilly said.
“That’s very nice of him,” the old man said. ‘most boys are out running around all the time.”
“Why don’t you shut up?” the policeman said to the old man.
“Ignatius,” Mrs. Reilly asked in a trembling voice, “what you done, boy?”
“Actually, Mother, I believe that it was he who started everything.” Ignatius pointed to the old man with his bag of sheet music. “I was simply standing about, waiting for you, praying that the news from the doctor would be encouraging.”
“Get that old man outta here,” Mrs. Reilly said to the policeman. “He’s making trouble. It’s a shame they got people like him walking the streets.”
“The police are all communiss,” the old man said.
‘didn’t I say for you to shut up?” the policeman said angrily.
“I fall on my knees every night to thank my God we got protection,” Mrs. Reilly told the crowd. “We’d all be dead without the police. We’d all be laying in our beds with our throats cut open from ear to ear.”
“That’s the truth, girl,” some woman answered from the crowd.
‘say a rosary for the police force.” Mrs. Reilly was now addressing her remarks to the crowd. Ignatius caressed her shoulder wildly, whispering encouragement. “Would you say a rosary for a communiss?”
“No!” several voices answered fervently. Someone pushed the old man.
“It’s true, lady,” the old man cried. “He tried to arrest your boy. Just like in Russia. They’re all communiss.”
“Come on,” the policeman said to the old man. He grabbed him roughly by the back of the coat.
“Oh, my God!” Ignatius said, watching the wan little policeman try to control the old man. “Now my nerves are totally frayed.”
“Help!” the old man appealed to the crowd. “It’s a takeover. It’s a violation of the Constitution!”
“He’s crazy, Ignatius,” Mrs. Reilly said. “We better get outta here, baby.” She turned to the crowd. “Run, folks. He might kill us all. Personally, I think maybe he’s the communiss.”
“You don’t have to overdo it, Mother,” Ignatius said as they pushed through the dispersing crowd and started walking rapidly down Canal Street. He looked back and saw the old man and the bantam policeman grappling beneath the department store clock. “Will you please slow down a bit? I think I’m having a heart murmur.”
“Oh, shut up. How you think I feel? I shouldn’t haveta be running like this at my age.”
“The heart is important at any age, I’m afraid.”
“They’s nothing wrong with your heart.”
“There will be if we don’t go a little slower.” The tweed trousers billowed around Ignatius’ gargantuan rump as he rolled forward. ‘do you have my lute string?”
Mrs. Reilly pulled him around the corner onto Bourbon Street, and they started walking down into the French Quarter.
“How come that policeman was after you, boy?”
“I shall never know. But he will probably be coming after us in a few moments, as soon as he has subdued that aged fascist.”
“You think so?” Mrs. Reilly asked nervously.
“I would imagine so. He seemed determined to arrest me. He must have some sort of quota or something. I seriously doubt that he will permit me to elude him so easily.”
“Wouldn’t that be awful! You’d be all over the papers, Ignatius. The disgrace! You musta done something while you was waiting for me, Ignatius. I know you, boy.”
“If anyone was ever minding his business, it was I,” Ignatius breathed. “Please. We must stop. I think I’m going to have a hemorrhage.”
“Okay.” Mrs. Reilly looked at her son’s reddening face and realized that he would very happily collapse at her feet just to prove his point. He had done it before. The last time that she had forced him to accompany her to mass on Sunday he had collapsed twice on the way to the church and had collapsed once again during the sermon about sloth, reeling out of the pew and creating an embarrassing disturbance. “Let’s go in here and sit down.”
She pushed him through the door of the Night of Joy bar with one of the cake boxes. In the darkness that smelled of bourbon and cigarette butts they climbed onto two stools. While Mrs. Reilly arranged her cake boxes on the bar, Ignatius spread his expansive nostrils and said, ‘my God, Mother, it smells awful. My stomach is beginning to churn.”
“You wanna go back on the street? You want that policeman to take you in?”
Ignatius did not answer; he was sniffing loudly and making faces. A bartender, who had been observing the two, asked quizzically from the shadows, “Yes?”
“I shall have a coffee,” Ignatius said grandly. “Chicory coffee with boiled milk.”
“Only instant,” the bartender said.
“I can’t possibly drink that,” Ignatius told his mother. “It’s an abomination.”
“Well, get a beer, Ignatius. It won’t kill you.”
“I may bloat.”
“I’ll take a Dixie 45,” Mrs. Reilly said to the bartender.
“And the gentleman?” the bartender asked in a rich, assumed voice. “What is his pleasure?”
“Give him a Dixie, too.”
“I may not drink it,” Ignatius said as the bartender went off to open the beers.
“We can’t sit in here for free, Ignatius.”
“I don’t see why not. We’re the only customers. They should be glad to have us.”
“They got strippers in here at night, huh?” Mrs. Reilly nudged her son.
“I would imagine so,” Ignatius said coldly. He looked quite pained. “We might have stopped somewhere else. I suspect that the police will raid this place momentarily anyway.” He snorted loudly and cleared his throat. “Thank God my moustache filters out some of the stench. My olfactories are already beginning to send out distress signals.”
After what seemed a long time, during which there was much tinkling of glass and closing of coolers somewhere in the shadows, the bartender appeared again and set the beers before them, pretending to knock Ignatius’ beer into his lap. The Reillys were getting the Night of Joy’s worst service, the treatment given unwanted customers.
“You don’t by any chance have a cold Dr. Nut, do you?” Ignatius asked.
‘my son loves Dr. Nut,” Mrs. Reilly explained. “I gotta buy it by the case. Sometimes he sits himself down and drinks two, three Dr. Nuts at one time.”
“I am sure that this man is not particularly interested,” Ignatius said.
“Like to take that cap off?” the bartender asked.
“No, I wouldn’t!” Ignatius thundered. “There’s a chill in here.”
‘suit yourself,” the bartender said and drifted off into the shadows at the other end of the bar.
“Calm down,” his mother said.
Ignatius raised the earflap on the side next to his mother.
“Well, I will lift this so that you won’t have to strain your voice. What did the doctor tell you about your elbow or whatever it is?”
“It’s gotta be massaged.”
“I hope you don’t want me to do that. You know how I feel about touching other people,”
“He told me to stay out the cold as much as possible.”
“If I could drive, I would be able to help you more, I imagine.”
“Aw, that’s okay, honey.”
“Actually, even riding in a car affects me enough. Of course, the worst thing is riding on top in one of those Greyhound Scenicruisers. So high up. Do you remember the time that I went to Baton Rouge in one of those? I vomited several times. The driver had to stop the bus somewhere in the swamps to let me get off and walk around for a while. The other passengers were rather angry. They must have had stomachs of iron to ride in that awful machine. Leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins.”
“I remember that, Ignatius,” Mrs. Reilly said absently, drinking her beer in gulps. “You was really sick when you got back home.”
“I felt better then. The worst moment was my arrival in Baton Rouge. I realized that I had a round-trip ticket and would have to return on the bus.”
“You told me that, babe.”
“The taxi back to New Orleans cost me forty dollars, but at least I wasn’t violently ill during the taxi ride, although I felt myself beginning to gag several times. I made the driver go very slowly, which was unfortunate for him. The state police stopped him twice for being below the minimum highway speed limit. On the third time that they stopped him they took away his chauffeur’s license. You see, they had been watching us on the radar all along.”
Mrs. Reilly’s attention wavered between her son and the beer. She had been listening to the story for three years.
“Of course,” Ignatius continued, mistaking his mother’s rapt look for interest, “that was the only time that I had ever been out of New Orleans in my life. I think that perhaps it was the lack of a center of orientation that might have upset me. Speeding along in that bus was like hurtling into the abyss. By the time we had left the swamps and reached those rolling hills near Baton Rouge, I was getting afraid that some rural rednecks might toss bombs at the bus. They love to attack vehicles, which are a symbol of progress, I guess.”
“Well, I’m glad you didn’t take the job,” Mrs. Reilly said automatically, taking guess as her cue.
“I couldn’t possibly take the job. When I saw the chairman of the Medieval Culture Department, my hands began breaking out in small white bumps. He was a totally soulless man. Then he made a comment about my not wearing a tie and made some smirky remark about the lumber jacket. I was appalled that so meaningless a person would dare such effrontery. That lumber jacket was one of the few creature comforts to which I’ve ever been really attached, and if I ever find the lunatic who stole it, I shall report him to the proper authorities.”
Mrs. Reilly saw again the horrible, coffee-stained lumber jacket that she had always secretly wanted to give to the Volunteers of America along with several other pieces of Ignatius’ favorite clothing.
“You see, I was so overwhelmed by the complete grossness of that spurious “chairman” that I ran from his office in the middle of one of his cretinous ramblings and rushed to the nearest bathroom, which turned out to be the one for “Faculty Men.” At any rate, I was seated in one of the booths, having rested the lumber jacket on top of the door of the booth. Suddenly I saw the jacket being whisked over the door. I heard footsteps. Then the door of the rest room closed. At the moment, I was unable to pursue the shameless thief, so I began to scream. Someone entered the bathroom and knocked at the door of the booth. It turned out to be a member of the campus security force, or so he said. Through the door I explained what had just happened. He promised to find the jacket and went away. Actually, as I have mentioned to you before, I have always suspected that he and the “chairman” were the same person. Their voices sounded somewhat similar.”
“You sure can’t trust nobody nowadays, honey.”
“As soon as I could, I fled from the bathroom, eager only to get away from that horrible place. Of course, I was almost frozen standing on that desolate campus trying to hail a taxi. I finally got one that agreed to take me to New Orleans for forty dollars, and the driver was selfless enough to lend me his jacket. By the time we arrived here, however, he was quite depressed about losing his license and had grown rather surly. He also appeared to be developing a bad cold, judging by the frequency of his sneezes. After all, we were on the highway for almost two hours.”
“I think I could drink me another beer, Ignatius.”
‘mother! In this forsaken place?”
“Just one, baby. Come on, I want another.”
“We’re probably catching something from these glasses. However, if you’re quite determined about the thing, get me a brandy, will you?”
Mrs. Reilly signaled to the bartender, who came out of the shadows and asked, “Now what happened to you on that bus, bud? I didn’t get the end of the story.”
“Will you kindly tend the bar properly?” Ignatius asked furiously. “It is your duty to silently serve when we call upon you. If we had wished to include you in our conversation, we would have indicated it by now. As a matter of fact, we are discussing rather urgent personal matters.”
“The man’s just trying to be nice, Ignatius. Shame on you.”
“That in itself is a contradiction in terms. No one could possibly be nice in a den like this.”
“We want two more beers.”
“One beer and one brandy,” Ignatius corrected.
“No more clean glasses,” the bartender said.
“Ain’t that a shame,” Mrs. Reilly said. “Well, we can use the ones we got.”
The bartender shrugged and went off into the shadows.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Walker Percy uses the words gargantuan and Falstaffian to describe Ignatius. Is it only his size that makes Ignatius seem larger than life? Percy likens him to the late screen comic Oliver Hardy. To which more recent personalities could Ignatius be compared?
2. The first chapter of A Confederacy of Dunces is generally thought to be among the funniest in American literature. Do you agree? What other comic novels remind you of A Confederacy of Dunces and why?
3. Ignatius constantly criticizes and deprecates his mother while relying on her to keep his life together. Does she feel the same way about her son? What does she need from him and what does she get for her pains?
4. The city of New Orleans plays a central role in the novel, seeming to be a character in and of itself.
Could this novel have been set in another American city? Elaborate.
5. Project Ignatius and Myrna into the future. They are supposed to be in love, but find themselves fighting before ever leaving the city. Will they make it to New York? Can New York survive Ignatius? What possibilities do you see for them?
6. Ignatius is a virgin, but Myrna declares herself to be sexually uninhibited. Is each telling the truth? Can you see them becoming intimate? Discuss this in light of your own experience or that of a friend’s.
7. Ignatius thinks of himself as a knight errant seeking to set the modern world in line with his theories of good taste and solid geometry. Are his efforts doomed to failure? Has he chosen his quests unwisely or does the fault lie in his personality? Is the way he views the world askew?
8. Is Ignatius purely lazy or does his attitude toward work reflect his disdain for the modern world of commerce? Ignatius feels he is an anachronism. Where would he fit in?
9. Although the book is longer than the average novel, Walker Percy fought against it being severely edited. What do you think of his decision? If you were to expand or cut something, what would it be?
10. The book is elaborately plotted, but does it work? What do you find unbelievable or improbable?
11. In the forty years since A Confederacy of Dunces was written our attitudes toward what constitutes pornography have changed. Given the same circumstances, would Lana Lee be arrested today for her bird show? Develop a scenario suitable for today’s more permissive times.
12. It is unusual for a current novel to use written dialect. Would A Confederacy of Dunces be the same if characters like Burma and Santa spoke in standard English?
13. In the twenty-plus years since its publication A Confederacy of Dunces has become a cult novel. What does that mean to you? Give examples of other cult novels you may have read. Have you joined in slavish devotion to any of these works?
14. In a letter dated March 5, 1965, Toole critiques his own novel writing that he “was certain that the Levys were the book’s worst flaw” and “that couple kept slipping from my grasp as I tried to manipulate them throughout the book” (Nevils and Hardy, page 139). What did he mean? And do you agree? Are they the only characters who don’t come to life? Toole lauds other characters as being representative of New Orleans. Who do you think they might be?
Nevils, Ren” Pol, and Deborah George Hardy. Ignatius Rising. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
Ignatius Rising by Ren” Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy; The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger; Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey; Geronimo Rex by Barry Hannah; A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison; The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle