Review of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

ISBN 0802130208 (ISBN13: 9780802130204)

I always enjoyed the line from Jonathan Swift – “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

This novel, much like Swift’s, is a scathing satire. Ignatius Reilly is both a truly sad main character and probably a partial analog of the author, whose even sadder demise undercut my casual reading of this brilliantly humorous book.

I read this in my childhood and it stuck with me. I enjoyed many of the scenes immensely and laughed out loud throughout. Around the same time, I picked up Gulliver’s Travels. In both works I felt that the critiques of human foolishness were on point, while they are separated by hundreds of years in both style and authorship, the two works will forever be interwoven in my mind.

I stumbled across the brightly colored Confederacy of Dunces volume in a family member’s house, remembered it, and then sought it out. She had been telling me about her thesis, which had involved Pope’s “The Dunciad,” which I later read and enjoyed as well. I seemed to have an obsession with the word “Dunce” in my youth, for the same reason I felt drawn to certain other unusual words I won’t mention.
Little did I know that this novel was a polished masterpiece of subtle philosophy and an effective and enjoyable character study. I did not know who Boethius was until later, but I still cherished the novel, and identified with the skewed perspective, which occupied an overblown space in my head, as I replayed the scenes later, always picturing the main character as John Candy from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

The style is not for everyone, but it is a shame when any author’s reputation interferes with anyone’s enjoyment of a rewarding novel.

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