A Confederacy of Dunces, 1980
The Neon Bible, 1989
John Kennedy Toole will perhaps always be touted more for his potential than for his accomplishments, for his first published novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, was not printed until eleven years after his death. Born in 1937 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Toole was the son of John Toole, a car salesman, and Thelma Ducoing Toole, a teacher. The author, who had written his first novel at the age of sixteen, received a B.A. from Tulane University in 1958 and an M.A. in English from Columbia University the following year. After teaching at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Toole served in the army, writing A Confederacy of Dunces while stationed in Puerto Rico from 1962 to 1963. Later Toole returned to New Orleans, where he worked toward a Ph.D. at Tulane University and taught at Saint Mary’s Dominican College. In late 1968, he left New Orleans to travel and a few months later committed suicide in his car in Biloxi, Mississippi. He was thirty-one years old.
The Neon Bible, which Toole wrote at the age of sixteen, was finally cleared for publication in 1989, following legal battles among the author’s heirs. The novel is set in a small southern town in the 1940’s and focuses on young David, who must deal with eccentric family members and the rigid, unforgiving religious fanaticism of the small-town community. David’s crisis occurs when his father departs to fight in the war, his favorite aunt leaves town, and the preacher takes his mother away.
The publication of A Confederacy of Dunces has a unique history. Between 1963 and 1966, Toole negotiated with the publishing house Simon and Schuster, which, after commanding numerous revisions, finally rejected the work in 1966. Toole apparently gave up hope of the novel’s ever being published. After Toole’s death, however, his mother sent the worn, nearly illegible carbon copy to eight more publishers during the next seven years. In 1976 she began repeated efforts to persuade novelist Walker Percy, teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans, to read her son’s novel. In the novel’s foreword, Percy describes his unsuccessful attempts to dodge Thelma Toole as well as his eventual determination to see the novel through to its publication by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. Despite the many rejections by publishers, A Confederacy of Dunces was a surprising critical success, selling forty-five thousand hardcover copies in five printings and later appearing on The New York Times paperback best-seller list for more than a month. The novel was awarded the 1980 Pulitzer Prize in fiction and was honored with a nomination for the prestigious Faulkner Award in 1981.
A Confederacy of Dunces is about thirty-year-old Ignatius J. Reilly, obese, educated, and lazy, who sponges off his garish, alcoholic mother in the colorful city of New Orleans. Ignatius, whose name recalls Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order, is a proponent of medieval philosophy and values. He reads the work of the Roman Christian philosopher Boethius, who advocates passive acceptance of life’s events. Ignatius records his thoughts and observations in Big Chief Tablets, which are strewn around his dank monk’s-cell of a room. He practices celibacy and upholds the ideals of theology and geometry and of taste and decency. Meanwhile, he escapes into the worlds of television and film while verbalizing his disgust at the vulgarity of such forms of entertainment; he consumes massive quantities of junk food and Dr. Nut soda despite a pyloric valve that causes intestinal distress when he is emotionally upset.
Ignatius’s search for employment, at his mother’s insistence, generates several subplots. At first he tries to work at the Levy Pants Company, a dying business in which almost no one, not even the owner, takes an interest. Ignatius decorates the office with hand-painted signs, rids the business of its problem of a backlog of files by discarding them, and incites unenthusiastic factory workers to riot in legitimate protest of squalid working conditions. He also befriends Miss Trixie, a senile octogenarian who shows up for work in her nightgown, mumbles incessantly about a Christmas turkey she was promised but never received, and begs to be allowed to retire. Ignatius’s next job as a hot dog salesman for Paradise Vendors is even less profitable, for he eats more hot dogs than he sells and often slips away to the movies.
In frequent correspondence with Myrna Minkoff, a New York political reformer whom he met in college and with whom he shares a love-hate relationship, Ignatius rebuffs her suggestions that all of his problems are sexual and organizes a group of French Quarter homosexuals in a plan to reform the world. Other subplots involve Ignatius’s mother, who declares independence from her son and becomes socially active, and the female proprietor of a strip joint, The Night of Joy, who peddles pornography and exploits her employees.
A Confederacy of Dunces has received much critical praise for the ingenuity of its characters and for the intricacy of its plot but mostly for its unique humor and the vividness of its language and local color. Some critics have been made uneasy by the overreliance on coincidence in the novel, but perhaps more disturbing to some has been the difficulty in categorizing the work. Ignatius J. Reilly is so repulsive, and his treatment of his mother is so insensitive and cruel, that it is misleading to label him a comic hero. The title of the novel is from Jonathan Swift’s writing: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” The novel is also in the mold of a Swiftian satire. Toole’s hero is roguish, but the reader finds that this unpleasant character casts aspersions that likely echo the reader’s own sentiments against the crassness, the materialism, and the decadence of society. Unlike the protagonist in traditional satires, however, Ignatius embraces many of the very hypocrisies, obscenities, and insensitivities against which he rails.