Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Long, Strange Trip *

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, Read by Barrett Whitener, Blackstone Audiobooks, 2005

Lately more often than I would have suspected, I’ve tasked myself with writing reviews of books that I quite frankly love and always have loved. This makes me feel somewhat unreliable to you the reader. For some reason, there’s this floating notion out there that we reviewers should try to approach things objectively, to strive for some Pure Truth about Art and Life and all that. It’s nonsense, and I don’t really, truly, actually, completely believe it — only part of me keeps thinking that there’s maybe a smidgen of truth to it.

To that degree, I’ve often grabbed books I didn’t know anything about. I’ve grabbed books I didn’t think I’d like (and often haven’t). I’ve grabbed books I would never have put the time and energy into reading on paper. I’ve enjoyed a great deal more of contemporary pop fiction than I would have ever guessed. And I’ve even picked books specifically I knew I was going to loathe, just for the sheer sake of tearing them to pieces.

The one thing I’ve tried to do is limit the number of reviews of things a.) I’ve already read, and b.) things I absolutely and unconditionally adore. I don’t always stick to this rule, but I try.

That said — who the hell doesn’t love A Confederacy of Dunces?

So much of this novel brings me such great joy that it’s quite difficult to pin down a theme or a quality that could be isolated as its greatest charm. While the book's epigraph from Swift suggests that you could recognize genius by the confederacy of dunces arranged against it, recognizing genius in this novel remains impossible. A motley collection of nuts, oddballs, crackpots, and idiots, Toole's novel circles around the inspired, delusional self-proclaimed genius Ignatius J.Riley, who might himself fit well into a certain category of dunce.

The book starts out lazily enough, plenty of action, but none of it going anywhere in particular. Ignatius, standing under a clock waiting for his mother, is questioned by the equally bumbling and comic Patrolman Angelo Mancuso. From this one failed arrest attempt, everything that follows spirals out in loopy patterns.

From here we are moved along to Ignatius' attempts at finding employment to pay off a debt his mother incurred while drunk driving. We track Patrolman Mancuso’s punishment — being put on stakeout in public lavatories and the like in various low-grade costumes. On what seems a totally separate track at one stage, we shake our heads in amused admiration for Burma Jones, fresh out of jail, janitor for Night of Joy, a seedy strip club operating partly as a front for porn. Jones is perhaps the book’s greatest delight for me on most readings, if choosing solely from characters, though it is the book’s loopy vision of a mad, mad, mad, mad world of misunderstandings and mistaken motivation that is the key to the book’s heart.

By now the story of the book’s inception, attempted publication, author’s suicide, and eventual posthumous glory are ancient lore, but it’s always worth noting that the measure of the artist’s ability to market and sell a work is a poor methodology by which to judge a work’s quality. That remains the common equation at publishing houses, I’m afraid, and the history of literature is littered with tales of books rejected dozens of times before finally being accepted only to go on to publishing glory.

Nevertheless, A Confederacy of Dunces remains one of the sadder versions of that story, partly because of the author’s tragic ending and partly because the book, while winning prizes and busting out onto bestseller lists, has quietly gone on to more cult status. A contemporary in the try, try again school of books rejected repeatedly by publishing houses, Anne Rice, whose novels are not nearly as entertaining as Toole’s, has gone on to wealth and fame, her books bywords in their field.

While both novelists shared Louisiana as their base of operations, Rice saw decadent beauty and Toole the absurd as a daily way of living, as the human condition. As his novel gathers steam, we follow each of the various subplots as they wind and twist their way through this most picaresque of picaresqueties. The travails of Ignatius as a hotdog salesman, revolutionary, head of a sodomite political party, seem to move up a notch with each new temporary success and catastrophic failure. There is something akin to moving through the rings of hell in observing each of Riley’s more prominent disasters, though each twist is accompanied by hysterical laughter as opposed to abject terror.

One can choose to see Toole’s novel as either the spiral of absurdity spinning out of control or a jerry-rigged Rube Goldberg device wherein each new plot complication piles high another level of insanity. Depending on your take, we mount and mount higher and higher planes of bizarreity until collapse or the center can not hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Either way, Toole’s novel is a ride not to be missed. Like those guys you sometimes see at amusement parks, returning over and over again to the same Scrambler or what have you, A Confederacy of Dunces is a trip I'll be making again.

And again.

Have you gone yet?

Barrett Whitener owns this book in his reading, just taking it and running down the field with it, making it his own. I doubt I will ever forget his “Whoa!” delivered in Jones mock shock or astonishment. It’s the character that comes to dominate his reading with his scornful delivery and his wise-ass pronouncements. I loved every minute of it.

* My apologies for the title, that hoary old Grateful Dead cliche, but it was all I could come up with at 1am, titles being the hardest part of this business.

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