The late John Kennedy Toole wrote Confederacy and no review could be complete without an understanding of Toole.
Toole was born in New Orleans where he started writing at an early age. His first novel was completed when he was but 16. Toole became a college professor though he wrote Confederacy while in the Army. Once completed, he undertook the task we all know as publishing; however, Confederacy was universally rejected. Suffering from depression in part from his perceived failure as a writer, Toole took his own life at the age of 31. With his death came the end of one of the most unique voices in American literature. Ever.
More than a decade after his death, through the tireless efforts of his mother and with the assistance of novelist Walter Percy, Confederacy was published in 1980. It went on to be receive a Pulitzer. Not bad for a book that was called “pointless” by one editor.
Today Confederacy is recognized as a mainstay of Southern Literature.
At the heart of Confederacy is Ignatius J. Reilly, a flamboyant, vile, larger than life anti-hero. In fact if told the main character was a 30 something overweight, grotesque, flatulent, self-indulgent slob, it’s no surprise that an editor might pass on the book. However, to pass on this book is to pass on virtual perfection.
In short summary, Ignatius is frustrated by the hand in life he has been dealt. No one understands his genius. No one understands his plight. No one is his equal. He struggles everyday to bring some semblance order to his world, to unite those around him in the common goal of realism and intellect – his intellect.
Oh the ride on which he takes us.
Ignatius abhors all that is modern culture. He despises Greyhound. He attends the movies only to mock them. He feels the world lacks order and “geometry.” He finds solace in the medieval philosophers, Boethius in particular. However, this is balanced against his love for all of the modern conveniences of the world. (If Ignatius lived today he would curse social media, technology and progress all the while Tweeting about it to the masses.)
Ignatius feels he does not belong in this world and that a higher power, Fortuna and her evil wheel of fate, guide his destiny and that all he can do is hold on and bear witness.
As complex as is the plot, it begins in the most simple of fashions.
Dressed in a green hunting cap complete with earflaps, large tweed trousers, flannel shirt and muffler, Ignatius awaits his mother’s return from shopping in downtown New Orleans. While waiting Ignatius and his garb attract the attention of a patrolman who decides to haul him in as a “suspicious character.” Though Ignatius avoids a trip to jail, while driving them home, his mother crashes their car into a building. Not having the money to pay for the damage, Ignatius must go to work to help pay the debt. From here we are off to the races, or for Ignatius, off to the hot dog cart by way of the textile factory.
Pair with Ignatius a burnt out manufacturing executive, a scheming female burlesque club owner, an African-American porter, a downtrodden police officer, a crew of French Quarter dandies, a juvenile delinquent, a moronic night club dancer and a cast of other characters and the fun is non-stop.
Toole is from New Orleans and his knowledge of the city with all of its subtleties is the true strength of Confederacy. He has a command of the dialogue and undoubtedly was intimately acquainted with each and every character in Confederacy.
The prose is lyrical as the tale unfolds.
The dialogue at times will have you pause to put the book down. You’ll be laughing so hard you won’t be able to focus on the words. At other times the plot will make you stop in an effort to understand how Toole was able to accomplish what you just read.
For fans of southern literature, read Confederacy. For those who have yet to discover the magic, read Confederacy. For those of you who are reading this review having read Confederacy, read Confederacy again.
We have heard a lot about New Orleans today and perhaps we have lost perspective on what the city once was. Confederacy will always preserve the city in a way that everyone should love to remember.