Anyone who’s been to Bourbon Street knows: the Big Easy contains its share of unique and interesting characters. It didn’t surprise the John Kennedy’s Toole’s fictitious account of the area would do the same. A Confederacy of Dunces introduced to literature the most eccentric and entertaining character I’ve had the pleasure of encountering. He took the form of Ignatius J. Reilly: one time college professor turned hot dog vendor. And how best to craft a story regarding the most original character ever devised? Why with a host of characters each distinctive in their own rights. A comic masterpiece resulted.
Aside from providing him a quirky personality that set a new standard for peculiarity, Mr. Toole ensured his protagonist showed his originality. Upon introducing Ignatius on page one, he cleverly combined how the character’s outer appearance reflected his personality.
…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. (Location 71)
Keep in mind this description occurred on the first page. Upon taking on the dual roles of hot dog vendor by day and political agitator by night, Ignatius modified his wardrobe. He switched to a veritable pirate costume. This one included a plastic cutlass and an earring. He wore them to both jobs. Now that’s unconventional.
In addition to his unusual attire, Ignatius had interesting philosophical leanings.
As a medievalist Ignatius believed in the rota Fortunae, or wheel of fortune, a central concept in De Consolatione Philosophiae, the philosophical work which had laid the foundation for medieval thought. Boethus, the late Roman who had written the Consolatione while unjustly imprisoned by the emperor, had said that a blind goddess spins us on a wheel, that our luck comes in cycles. (Loc 497)
Ignatius held a very high opinion of himself; believing all of society inferior. That’s remarkable for a 30 year old unemployed man living with his widowed mother. He engaged in hobbies that reflected his grandiose view of his genius. They included watching television programs while complaining about their degeneracy. He would frequent movies often and do the same. For some reason, he participated in these activities alone. Ignatius noted, “I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.” (Location 1064)
Ignatius had a penchant for fibbing. On one occasion he commented:
When Fortuna spins you downward, go out to a movie and get more out of life. Ignatius was about to say this to himself; then he remembered that he went to the movies almost every night, no matter what way Fortuna was spinning. (Loc 863)
Ignatius convinced himself that he was working on a “lengthy indictment against our century.” (Loc 146) The reality of what he completed often didn’t correspond with what he convinced himself he completed. His mother (finally) pressured him to get a job. She required financial assistance to pay someone whose car she damaged. Ignatius responded:
“Anyway it is inconceivable that I should get a job. I am very busy with my work at the moment, and I feel that I am entering a very fecund stage. Perhaps the accident jarred and loosened my thought. At any rate, I accomplished a great deal today.” (Loc 776)
The writing session he referenced produced one paragraph in a Big Chief writing tablet.
To accompany Ignatius on his fictitious quests, the author surrounded him with a series of characters each eccentric in his/her own way. His erstwhile college sweetheart, Myrna Minkoff, sent him letters imploring him to get his life in order. Patrolman Mancuso performed stakeouts in some very odd places. And, perhaps, Ignatius’ mother, Irene, served as the strangest of all. No matter how disrespectful, she tolerated Ignatius’ behavior.
John Kennedy Toole crafted a comic tour de force with A Confederacy of Dunces. It contained an even wittier corps of characters than Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. That’s quite an achievement. Unfortunately, Fortuna’s wheel did not bode well for the author. He passed away eleven years before the book’s publication. Shortly, thereafter she spun it once again. This time it landed more favorably. This book, his first novel, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.