John Kennedy Toole (1980) A Confederacy of Dunces

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I got to page 35 of this book and gave up. The tale of Ignatius J. Reilly who has a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of humanity and his poor, put-upon mother whom he lives with, and is dependent on, could be described as farce. Anthony Burgess on the cover describes it as ‘A Fine Funny Novel. This is the kind of book one wants to keep quoting from.’ I don’t feel any great need to do that.

The story of how I and so many others came to be reading this book is more interesting to me than the book itself. Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland mentioned John Kennedy Toole and A Confederacy of Dunces as being the kind of book he loved. He’d he’d given it to one of his friends and he loved the fact he heard them laughing through the walls of his cabin (he was on a cruise, Billy Connolly is loaded, but he’s still one of us – kinda- Made in Scotland is his swansong).

Libraries across Scotland were swamped for requests for A Confederacy of Dunces. It jumped up the Amazon ratings like a Yeti coming out of cold storage.

The foreword by Walker Percy is the best part of the book. I’ll quote it rather than the book.

Perhaps the best way to introduce this novel –which on my third reading of it astounds me even more than the first – is to tell the first encounter with it. While I was teaching at Loyola in 1976 I began to get telephone calls from a lady unknown to me. What she proposed was preposterous. It was not that she had written a couple of chapters of a novel and wanted to go to my class. It was her son, who was dead had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel and she wanted me to read it. Why would I want to do that? I asked her. Because it’s a great novel, she said.

…somehow it came to pass that she stood in my office and handed me the hefty manuscript.

The rest is history, or her story, the story of John Kennedy Toole’s mother, whose persistence, like the mother or Ignatius J. Reilly,  paid off. Her son’s genius was recognised. Not by me, but people that matter. All readers matter, but some more than others.  There’s a lesson there for all us would-be novelists. Have a persistent mother and be friends with the god of luck and The Big Yin above.   Read on.

Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland, Part 1, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, director Mike Reily.

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Billy Connolly: Made in Scotland, Part 1, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, director Mike Reily.

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https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bwzhy6/billy-connolly-made-in-scotland-series-1-episode-1

Billy Connolly is one of our most successful exports. A bit like Sean Connery, but with a beard and a lot more hair. Nobody comes away with the usual shite, oh, I can’t understand what he’s saying, he doesn’t speak proper English. Well, fuck off then. I must admit I wasn’t a fan. Obviously, being that age, I got what he meant by The Crucifixion, that LP which was meant to be, oh, so funny.

You know it’s one of those jokes when somebody tells you all about it, I think it was Summy and they’re laughing so much, you think it must be hilarious. Judas goes up to the cross and Jesus tells him to come closer and closer and the punchline is Jesus sticks the heid on him. Ho. Ho. So fucking what?

As Billy Connolly admits, you get guys telling you funny things like that all the time. Only now do I appreciate when I’m a grumpy old cunt do I appreciate what Billy Connolly was doing then and is doing now. He’s telling it like it is, or at least like it was. That’s your da, that’s my da, when they’re pissed. Here’s your daft auntie, singing at the Christmas party, a song without any words but lots of shoulders and tear-filled emotion. Billy Connelly gets it, which is initself a gift, but his genius is he translates it into Glasgowese. Don’t try and get above yerself or somebody will knock you down.

He was a welder in the shipyards, those men only spaces where everybody let rip and you had to shout to be heard. And everybody took the piss out of everybody else because that’s how you got through the day. Dour men would find their voice in that other men-only space of the boozer. And of course there was bigotry. I’m not a Billy, you’re a Tim.

Billy recalls calling an old guy in the yard a blue nose and being held down and his nose painted blue. That’s funny in a lot of ways. It couldn’t happen now? Keep parroting and peddling that line until you believe it.  Billy called bigotry ‘a hobby’. The best of men, became the worst of men, for a few hours and after a few drinks brought their life back to normal. We’re still here. Especially in the build-up and aftermath of an Old Firm game. We’re still here today. Billy Connelly tells it like it is. Long may he last. Truth will out.