I have now read two of the “funniest books ever written.” Last year I read Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, and last night (late last night) I finished reading A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. That’s a lot to live up to. Not that they weren’t funny, but funniest ever? My quest continues.
It was hard for me to forget this book’s backstory. A Confederacy of Dunces wasn’t published during Kennedy Toole’s lifetime, though he tried repeatedly to get it published. It was finally published–and won a Pulitzer–eleven years after Kennedy Toole died. Reading, I can understand why publishers of the time passed on it. It’s a very odd book. The main character is a grotesque and overly fond of Boethius. The rest of the cast of characters are bizarre. The dialogue is written in Yat and there are parts that are horribly racist. So, yeah, probably not a bestseller for the 1960s.
The main character (who is a protagonist, but also his own antagonist) is Ignatius J. Reilly, an over-educated, bellicose hypochondriac who lives with his long suffering mother in a small, rundown house near the French Quarter of New Orleans. The book opens with a new patrolman trying to arrest Reilly as a “suspicious character,” an incident that rapidly turns into a bit of street theater when a bystander accuses the cop of being a “communiss.” From there, Kennedy Toole takes us deeper into the strange world of 1960s New Orleans. We meet the struggling employees of Levy Pants, the “Nazi proprietress” of a bar no one goes to except on accident, all while Reilly tries to find a job that lets him pursue his own weird hobbies and be paid for it rather than actually working.
Reilly really is his own worst enemy, but it’s hard to sympathize with him because he’s just such an awful human being. But it is easy to laugh at him, because he is also ridiculous. He adores medieval thought, but clearly enjoys the vices of the modern world (especially food and Dr. Nut) and movies with nubile young starlets. He spends a lot of time writing (or trying to write) long screeds or meandering jeremiads, but these just show how nuts Reilly really is.
The multiple plots and perspectives diverge until Kennedy brings them back together in the last third of the book in an amazing display of entirely believable coincidences. All the chickens, so to speak, come home to roost. It’s this third, I think, that makes this book’s reputation. It was hard to see, at the beginning, why this book has such a following. But I get it now.
I still think that calling a book the funniest ever is a kind of curse. That’s a lot to live up to. And finding something funny is entirely dependent on someone’s sense of humor. If you like absurdity and uncomfortable humor, A Confederacy of Dunces is the book for you. This book does deserve to be in the top then, though.