Fat, indolent and full of seething contempt for the world, Ignatius J Reilly is one of the great characters of modern fiction. And the scary thing is, he may never have stepped off the draft manuscript.
His creator, John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide in 1969, because he couldn’t find a publisher for his book. His indefatigable mother, however, carried the torch afterwards, and ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ was finally published in 1980, winning a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year.
This tragic backstory casts a certain shadow over your reading of the book, and you can’t help wondering how much of Ignatius is the author, and how much of Mrs Reilly is his mother. However, ‘A Confederacy…’ is a book that’s at once hilarious and heartbreaking. Set in a less-than-salubrious 1960s New Orleans, every character is seriously flawed yet sympathetic, their paths expertly woven together, as the somewhat farcical plot unfolds, with the obese, obtuse Ignatius at its centre. One unfortunate-yet-comedic disaster inevitably begets another, snowballing inexorably towards the final pages.
Toole has a finely tuned ear for dialogue, the colour and cadences of his various protagonists’ voices perfectly captured. He conveys a strong sense of place too, — from down-at-heel strip clubs, to once-grand movie houses, and the bustling streets of the French Quarter. But Ignatius is his true monument, a hapless, hopeless, slothful, deluded Oliver Hardy, clad in customary red flannel shirt and a green hat with earflaps. His crazed, quasi-intellectual rants against the modern world are lunatic genius, and rank among the finest and funniest pieces of prose you’ll ever read.
Cover illustrations: Jonny Hannah; Unknown; Gary Taxali