A couple of days ago, I visited a local bookstore. I love books, all books, and would rather hold a bad book in my hands than a good newspaper any day. I like the weight. I like the feel. I like the fact that the print never comes off on my skin and that the edges don't flop over when the cat's jockeying for space in my lap.
But my favorite book of all, a book I've just reread for the seventh time, is 44 years old. So I was surprised to see it at the store, repackaged and presented front and center as if new, on the fiction display table near the door.
A Confederacy of Dunces was finally published in 1980, but written by John Kennedy Toole in 1963. It chronicles the adventures of one Ignatius J. Reilly, an overweight, flatulent, perennially misunderstood (or maybe too-well-understood) intellectual with decidedly sociopathic tendencies. His singular mission in life is to impress his nemesis and the woman he loves, Myrna Minkoff.
Myrna harasses him unmercifully via the U.S. mail for his lack of activity, both political and personal, but most of all for the sin of spending virtually all his time in his room masturbating, scribbling his ruminations on the pages of Big Chief tablets, and annoying his neighbor by playing the trumpet. Ignatius generally succeeds in brushing Myrna off, until at the tender age of 30, he is forced from his room and onto the streets of New Orleans to seek employment. Hilarity ensues.
Dunces is the wittiest, most well-constructed novel I've ever read. Toole weaves myriad plot threads into a complex work paying off in a climax that has to be read to be believed. Every time I reread it, the experience is 90 percent pleasure, but also 10 percent sadness, and maybe even that ratio has changed over time. Other than The Neon Bible, a youthful volley which doesn't really work, Toole never wrote another novel. Unable to find a publisher for his work, he stuck one end of a hose into the exhaust pipe of his car, and the other through the window, and on a deserted road somewhere in south Georgia, committed suicide before his 32nd birthday.
I've heard all kinds of explanations for this: He was a closeted homosexual, an alcoholic or maybe just so isolated and tyrannized by his overbearing, narcissistic mother that he finally blew a head gasket. Maybe none of these; maybe all of these are true. Hell, anyone who reads Dunces can't help but wonder how much of J.K. Toole is embodied in the person of Ignatius; this is the tragedy of the novel. Ignatius doesn't work, because he can't. He doesn't understand the world in which he lives, the people who live in it, nor the expectations they have of him. So he stays in his room consoling himself with the writings of the Stoic philosopher Boethius, in the same way Boethius consoled himself with philosophy while awaiting death by torture in his cell. Ignatius, like his hero, has resigned himself to the fact that no one will ever understand him or comprehend the complexity of his worldview, and that he is ultimately alone in the world.
It's as if through Ignatius, Toole predicted his own fate. The world, in 1963, couldn't comprehend A Confederacy of Dunces. The smartest guy in the book is a black janitor; the police are depicted as bullies and fools; the action is spurred by Ignatius' drunken mother crashing into an apartment balcony. The book is full of demented geriatrics, beleaguered capitalists, unapologetic homosexuals, strippers, crooks, pornographers and otherwise seedy characters, all destined to live out their dreary lives in a decidedly uncharming New Orleans. Simon and Schuster, the house that rejected it, said "it wasn't about anything," when it was actually about everything, and laid bare, with the finest of edges, the ridiculous nature of humanity moving through the world.
When Dunces was finally published due to the efforts of Toole's mother and author Walker Percy, it was a huge smash. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980.
Timing really is everything.
A philosopher friend of mine once asked, were I stranded on a deserted island with only one book, which would it be? I answered immediately, A Confederacy of Dunces. This surprised him. He thought I'd pick Schopenhauer, or Descartes, or even a hack like Hegel, since that way, I'd be so irritated all the time, I wouldn't have any energy left to realize how miserable I was. But to my way of thinking, amidst the chaos of nature, I would want alongside me just one perfect thing.
Admittedly, after the 100th reading or so, Dunces wouldn't seem perfect anymore, but unless my own worldview slipped its moorings completely, at my core, I would understand that it was my perception that had changed, not the nature of perfection itself. In this sense, Dunces would give me great solace. What philosophy was to Boethius, what Boethius was to Ignatius, Toole would become to me.