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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