This is one of those books that I heard about randomly and then kept bumping into until it seemed like the only book in the world. I’ve read it myself now and so I finally understand why those who’ve discovered it can’t shut up about it. It’s a superb, absurd, joy of a book.
The main character, Ignatius J Reilly, has to be one of the most unattractive protagonists in literature. Physically gross, obsessively dirty and completely incapable of interacting with other people normally, he spreads chaos where ever he goes. In the opening scene he is nearly arrested for loitering, resulting in humiliation for the poor policeman who gets tied up in the whole debacle. This policeman becomes a recurrent character as his job becomes reliant on his ability to work well under-cover and successfully bring in suspicious loiterers, i.e. wander around the city in an increasingly bizarre set of fancy-dress costumes. It sounds like something out of Terry Pratchett, but the book is set in 1960s New Orleans and simply presents the havoc one man can wreck.
The book title is open to much interpretation. It comes from Swift’s ‘Thoughts on Various Subjects’ which you can read online at the wonderful Project Gutenburg if you feel in need of some pithy quotations. The full phrase is ‘When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.’ Personally, I like to take this ironically. Ignatius certainly considers himself a genius surrounded by idiots, but when asked what he actually does his reply is typically incongruous and unselfconscious: “I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman. “In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” When Ignatius explains his daily routine in front of a rowdy mob, they agree that it is admirable. No one is in league against him, though he is at war with the rest of the world. For a one example of many, just be grateful you were never present during his nightly cinema outings during which he inflates and explodes his popcorn bag in the middle of romantic scenes and shouts his opinions at the screen (examples: ‘What degenerate produced this abortion?” and ‘Thank God that scene is over.’)
Thanks to his distain and hatred of the human race, Ignatius leaves a trail of destruction through the city of New Orleans. My only issue when reading the book was the pity for all the characters he comes into contact with. My enjoyment of his impact on those around him was somewhat tempered by my fear for what would happen to them all. Just think of Patrolman Mancuso who gets sicker and sicker as the novel progresses, unable to shake a horrible cold as he is forced to work out of the bathroom at the bus station until he can actually arrest someone. That’s not even counting the poor bosses whose businesses self-destruct after employing Ignatius for however short a period of time.
The end of the book is wonderful. It’s life-affirming, utterly satisfying and made me feel guilty for doubting the author’s ability to bring triumph out of the mayhem he created. It is a real tragedy that Toole only wrote one novel; ‘A Confederacy’ was only published posthumously and Toole’s suicide is often attributed to his lack of literary success. His one book is a frenzied masterpiece and I cannot recommend it highly enough.