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Monday, January 23, 2017

A Confederacy of Dunces (1981) by John Kennedy Toole

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New Orleans is a major star of A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy toole.
Book Review
A Confederacy of Dunces  (1981)
 by John Kennedy Toole


   A Confederacy of Dunces has a publication history that perpetuates myths about the romantic artist-creater.  John Kennedy Toole, the author, committed suicide in 1969, and A Confederacy of Dunces wasn't published until 1980 (and then on a small, regional university press) and subsequently became a sensation, earning a rare posthumously awarded Pulitzer Prize.  A Confederacy of Dunces is still in print, is still read and is even the subject of protracted "only in Hollywood" type stories about a mythical film version that has never been actually made.

  Dunces is a rare thing: A late 20th century example of the picaresque novel, a genre last current in the mid 18th century, when it helped to define the parameters of what a novel would or would not be.  In the 19th and 20th century, the picaresque evolved into the English coming-of-age novel and the German bildungsroman, but the difference between the 18th century picaresque, and later novels influenced by the picaresque, was the lack of a moral purpose in the original picaresque.  Things happened, but people did not change or evolve.  This lack of moral center dovetails nicely with the 20th century existentialist novel, and Toole successfully evokes both, along with a level or erudition that resembles the James Joyce of Ulysses.  He also very successfully evokes the New Orleans of 1962, which scholars have pinpointed the year of the events of the novel based on films that the main character, rotund Ignatius Reilly, views in local movie theaters.

  This combination of 18th century and 20th century influences with a memorable location is a heady mixture, and then you add the "published 12 years after the untimely suicide of the brilliant author" and you have a recipe for box office magic!  Dunces is also notable for his grasp of New Orleans dialect- also something you don't see much of outside Tennessee Williams plays when it comes to literature.   This rich and heady stew seems so potentially intoxicating that the failure of it to gain an audience initially seems even more puzzling.

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