Friday, December 9, 2011

Just in Time for the Holidays - The Funniest Southern Novel Ever Written

If you've never read A Confederacy of Dunces, then please take a second and read the following excerpt. It may help you make up your mind whether you want to read what I absolutely believe is the funniest novel ever set in the South, if not the funniest novel ever written.

"Ignatius pulled his flannel nightshirt up and looked at his bloated stomach. He often bloated while lying in bed in the morning contemplating the unfortunate turn that events had taken since the Reformation. Doris Day and Greyhound Scenicruisers, whenever they came to mind, created an even more rapid expansion of his central region. But since the attempted arrest and the accident, he had been bloating for almost no reason at all, his pyloric valve snapping shut indiscriminately and filling his stomach with trapped gas, gas which had character and being and resented its confinement. He wondered whether his pyloric valve might be trying, Cassandralike, to tell him something."

That excerpt is just one of countless other parts of the book that made me laugh out loud as I read them, hungrily underline them with a yellow marker, and come back to re-read them again over the years.

The Ignatius mentioned in the excerpt is Ignatius J. Reilly, the book's protagonist, a wildly delusional French Quarter nut case who wanders the streets in a green hunting cap. His "full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs."

While Ignatius is the main character of A Confederacy of Dunces, his pyloric value plays at least a supporting role during their many French Quarter misadventures together. Yes, it's that kind of book.

The novel is priceless to me for so many reasons. It paints a vivid picture of New Orleans in the early 1960s, with actual stores and locations (some of them long gone but fondly remembered) woven into the narrative. (There's even a statue of Ignatius in New Orleans now.) The rogue's gallery of quirky characters is as rich as any you'll find in a novel. The author's writing style perfectly complements Ignatius' outrageous delusions of grandeur. This novel truly deserved the 1980 Pulitzer Prize it won for fiction.

But not all of Dunces is a laugh-out-loud experience. The backstory of how this book came to be published is tragic. The author, John Kennedy Toole, frustrated by so many rejections over so many years, committed suicide.  His mother took up the cause to get the book published and eventually brought it to the attention of noted author Walker Percy. He saw in the book what so many others hadn't: that Confederacy of Dunces is a rare novel of brilliance, humor, and surprising depths of sadness. Similarly, efforts to make a film of Ignatius' exploits have stopped and started over the years, with everyone from John Belushi to Will Farrell being considered for the role. As far as I know now, there is still no definite plan to make a movie of Dunces.

When I first read the book, I was about 23 or 24. I didn't dare read it in public because I never knew when I would erupt into volcanic laughter--a reading experience I have never had before or since.

And at that age, I didn't see the despair and melancholy just beneath the surface of the novel, either.

Rereading the book nearly 30 years later, that sadness is now on the surface for me. What's changed between my first and most recent readings? Not the book, certainly. I'm the one who's changed. I've been around long enough to recognize despair, isolation, insecurity, and misdirected rage when I see them, emotions that were too often invisible to me in my early 20s.

If you love Southern literature, have a slightly warped sense of humor, and have never read A Confederacy of Dunces, then by all means, please do it now and tell me what you think. Consider it a holiday gift to yourself, a fabulous antidote to the sometimes-forced seasonal cheer. And if you've read this book more than once over a span of time--or any book, for that matter--I'd love to know if your reactions were different.

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  1. Wow, what a right choice to highlight this remarkable novel. I began to read this book to my then 11 year old daughter, who after the first 50 pages took it out of my hands and read it all herself...laughter filled our sailing home as she tore through the pages. We have all read it since and have been touched by the novel's hilarity and pathos. Thanks Jim for the reminder and encouragement to read it again!

  2. I adore that book. Never have I laughed so hard while reading. Thanks for suggesting the book to me long ago. I need to go find it and enjoy it again!

  3. I love the book too. I even bought a book called Managing Ignatius about a man who managed hot dog vendors in New Orleans. If they ever get it together on the movie they better get it right. Great post. More people need to know about the book. Thanks!

  4. I thought I had read every piece of literature by or about Southerners--how did this escape my notice?! It will definitely be my Christmas-read. Thanks!

  5. I'll have to take a look at this book! Thanks for the recommendation, Jim.

  6. I think I'll pull it off the shelf and reread it too after this post!
    Did anyone read "The Neon Bible" ....very different, and was made into a film.

  7. I have a blank sheet of typing paper that I carry in my purse that is filled with little yellow post-it notes. On these notes is the title of a book that someone has reviewed and recommended. You will be proud to know that you now have a little posty-note all of your own for this book! It sounds extremely interesting!

    And you've given me a great idea for a blog post as well. Your blog is an un-ending source of laughter, insight, family and food!