“When a great genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign; that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” –Jonathan Swift
This is the quote that begins one of the funniest books ever written, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
The book is the story of an over-educated sloth named Ignatius J. Reilly who doesn’t like the 20th Century, to put it mildly. He nevertheless has to get out of his room where he spends his lazy days writing amounts to a manifesto as he mooches off his mother and get a job when a car accident requires the duo to pay damages. The author apparently based a lot of the character of Ignatius on one of his own colleagues from when he was a professor – then added some hysterical embellishments.
I say no more or I’d spoil the joy of this book. I’ll just give you a few Ignatius quotes:
“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.”
On what’s wrong with the century:
“With the breakdown of the medieval system, the gods of chaos, lunacy, and bad taste gained ascendancy.”
Before going to work:
“The day before me is fraught with God knows what horrors.”
On going to a 1960’s musical at the movies:
“The film I saw last night was especially grueling, a teen-age beach musical. I almost collapsed during the singing sequence on surfboard.”
There is a play in the works based on this book, and I can hardly wait to see it, since the book is laugh-out-loud funny – yet it, incredibly, almost didn’t get published. Finding agents and publishers can take quite some time. It’s all a matter of the right fit, and it rarely happens instantly with the first agent or publisher who’s approached. The trick is to move right on and try a second one if the first doesn’t work out, or a third, or even a hundreth.
Unfortunately the author of this comic masterpiece became so discouraged over his trouble with finding a publisher that he killed himself. He should never, ever have given up.
It was Toole’s indomitable mother who found a publisher for this book later, many years after Toole died. A Confederacy of Dunces, once in print, won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s made people happy all over the world. What a difference a day, or two or three, might have made in Toole’s life, if only he’d waited the publishing situation out!
The book even inspired a monument. It’s set in New Orleans, where a statue of the character of Ignatius was erected in the “Big Easy” in front of the site of the store where, in the opening chapter, he’s standing around waiting for his mother. Take a look. And if you’re in the midst of any kind of an uphill battle, stick your chin up and don’t despair. Remember this hilarious author that we lost too young, John Kennedy Toole. Keep going. Like the Commander of the USS Chesapeake once said during a battle in 1813, “Don’t give up the ship!”