By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: John Kennedy Toole
Narrated by: Barrett Whitener
John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece is about surfaces of society and an irony of depression, among other things. The first chapters of “A Confederacy of Dunces” defeats some readers’ interest. The comically described anti-hero of the story is so unappealing that some will become uninterested. However, the audible version of “A Confederacy of Dunces” changes one’s mind. Toole’s skillful writing and Barrett Whitener’s professional narration nearly guarantee completion of this tragi-comic tale.
The anti-hero’s name is Ignatius J. Reilly, an overweight, self-absorbed, weirdly dressed boy-man. Ignatius J Reilly reminds one of a friend who is quite intelligent. but so overwhelmed by the contradictions of life that he can neither go forward nor backward. Reilly cannot achieve adult independence or return to childhood. He becomes a perennial college student that graduates with a master’s degree and goes no further because of his family’s poverty. Reilly sees the absurdities of life and recoils from the idea of employment or constructive social contact.
Whitener, the narrator, adds an accented baritone voice to Reilly’s often skewed, but frequently prescient observations of life. Reilly observes American lives of police, prostitutes, professors, blacks, LBGTQ’ communities, and capitalist haves and have-nots. The narrator brings Toole’s characters to life in New Orleans.
As an adult virgin, Reilly is attracted to women rather than men. Reasons for his attraction are clouded by physical inertia and a complicated relationship with his alcoholic mother. His closest female relationship is with a woman he went to college with, Myrna Minkoff. Though Ms. Minkoff does not appear in person until near the end of Toole’s story, her peccadilloes and bizarre political beliefs are frequently explained in letters and telegrams to Reilly. Ms. Minkoff believes much of Reilly’s social difficulty is related to sexual frustration, his shrewish alcoholic mother, and ubiquitous animadversions (critical comments). Minkoff suffers from similar maladies but is, in contrast to Reilly, financially supported by a more affluent family.
Reilly is compelled to find work at the Levy pants company. The manager of the facility is non-confrontational and afraid of his employer and employees. The owner of the business is Mr. Levy. He chooses to hire an inept, non-confrontational manager because he hates the business and chooses a manager that will not challenge his management; all the while he squanders the business’s past financial success.
None of the characters in Toole’s book are pleasant people. His mother is a poor, uneducated alcoholic. His girlfriend lives in New York while he lives in New Orleans; and most of her thoughts are generally irrational. The aunt of an inept cop encourages Reilly’s mother to commit Reilly to an insane asylum. Lana Lee, a pornographic model who runs a strip joint and sells dirty pictures, is one of many Reilly’ antagonists. Miss Trixie is Reilly’s only local friend and she has dementia. Mrs. Levy is the wife of the pants manufacturer who attacks her husband’s inept handling of the family business. Ms. Levy rationalizes the irrationality of everyone, including herself.
The underlying story is comic, depending on one’s sense of humor. Reilly is compelled to find a job because of his alcoholic mother’s traffic accident that requires $1,000 in repairs. Reilly finds a job at the pants manufacturer and goes to work as a filing clerk. The wage is minimal but the business manager allows Reilly to do what he wants without supervision. He does what he wants without doing what he is hired to do. His filing system consists of file information thrown into a trash can.
In Reilly’s unsupervised position, he writes a vituperative forged letter to a major buyer of Levy Pants’ product; seemingly signed by the company owner. The buyer sues Mr. Levy for defamation. Mr. Levy is compelled to defend his company from a liable suit that could bankrupt him. Levy investigates the origin of the forgery. Levy tracks Reilly down.
Earlier, Reilly had been fired by Levy in one of his infrequent visits to the Levy pants business. The reason for the firing is for Reilly’s incitement of the work force to revolt against management for low wages; primarily paid to black laborers. The laborers ineffectively revolt but are left by Reilly to fend for themselves. The misled and underpaid laborers are victimized by both the company and Reilly who effectually abandons them
Levy finds Reilly’s mother is an alcoholic who berates her son for not having found a decent job based on a college education for which she paid. Levy reflects on the similarity of Reilly’s relationship with his mother and Levy’s relationship with his father. They both fail to capitalize on what is given to them. Reilly fails with an education he received at the expense of his mother, and Levy fails with a company inherited from his father.
Reilly’s life is a downward spiral heading for crises. When he is fired from Levy Pants, he goes to work for a Hot Dog’ cart-vendor. He eventually is fired from that job. Along the way, Reilly inadvertently instigates a police raid on a house of prostitution. One of Reilly’s nemesis, Officer Mancuso, has his career saved over the fiasco.
Reilly’s mother notifies an asylum of her son’s bizarre actions and asks that he be committed for treatment. Just as the asylum van approaches Reilly’s home, he is rescued by his girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff, and they set off for New York. The last paragraphs express Myrna’s reservation that Reilly’s life will change.
What makes this story poignant is that Toole manages to make one feel sorry for this strange and troubled anti-hero. Reilly’s keen observation of society is never turned on himself. In the course of Reilly’s adventures many of the maladies of American society are exposed but there is never a glimmer of self-understanding.
The author of “A Confederacy of Dunces”, John Kennedy Toole, kills himself at the age of 31; like David Foster Wallace at 46. Both gain great fame from their books. However, unlike the privileged Wallace, Toole comes from a poor family. Toole only gains fame after death; while Wallace is lauded while still alive. One wonders how such keen observers of society have so little understanding of themselves. Depression seems an indiscriminate killer of rich and poor.