A Closer Look At A Confederacy Of Dunces

Folks, or folk, if by any chance there’s only one of you left, I’m finally ready to start writing about A Confederacy of Dunces.  It has been my favorite book for the last 10 years, and I doubt that will ever change.  Occasionally Blood Meridian has encroached on the pedestal, but won’t ever truly overtake Confederacy.  

butterfly-typewriter-maclauchlinNo book has ever given me more joy, and it’s time for to try and give it its due.

I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks looking at John Kennedy Toole’s comic masterpiece.  For source material I’ll be citing largely from Cory MacLauchlin’s excellent Butterfly In The Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces.  If you have any interest in Toole’s story, or the origins of the book, you’ll love the biography.

Today I’m just going to tell you how I discovered the book.  

I was in my early twenties and was at a low point with my health.  I couldn’t get outside much, so I read an obscene amount of books that year.  I loved it when friends would refer to me and say things like “Yeah, he’s read everything.”  I was stupid enough to nod wisely and even came to believe it after a while.

Then I went into a used bookstore in Salt Lake City, during one of the many weekend trips I made to visit friends.  The owner was a kind old man who quickly made me aware of just how little I had read.  I was doing okay for a dabbling, pseudo-intellectual 21 year old, but he had been reading as much or more than me, for about 60 years.  He was a treasure who cared about books more than anyone I knew, and I include myself in that.

Sadly, the store didn’t get as much business as it should have, so I often had the owner to myself for conversations that might last two hours.  He never acted annoyed, or looked at his watch, and I never got the impression that he was humoring me.  I’m probably flattering myself, but I always liked to think that he saw in me a kindred spirit, an ally.

One day, while quizzing me about my reading–we were talking about humor that day–he said, “What do you think about A Confederacy of Dunces?”  He segued into this after I mentioned Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe and Dead Souls by Gogol.

I confessed that I’d never heard of Dunces.  He put a copy in my hands and said, “Go read it now, no more talking today.”  And then he wouldn’t let me pay for it.  He changed my life that day.  I don’t say that lightly, in the way that most people say “This book changed my life” and then proceed not to change.

When I say it changed me, here’s what I mean:

  • I’ve read it once or twice each year since then
  • I wouldn’t realize this for a long time, but much of my own sense of humor, in writing at least, was heavily influenced by his manic New Orleans picaresque
  • It made me want to get more serious about writing
  • No book has ever made me laugh so hard, so often.  No matter how bad I felt, I knew I could open to any page, at any hour, and find myself smiling minutes later.  Priceless.

I forced this book on anyone who would listen.  I still do.  Someone gave it to me for free.  I bet I’ve bought 20 copies that I’ve thrust into people’s hands, hoping they’ll have a similar experience to mine.

Some people absolutely hate it.  Some of my most well-read, critical friends think it is one of the worst books of all time.  We’ve all agreed to quit arguing.  We’re simply not going to reach each other.

Some people, like me, love it more than anything and enjoy spending time with people who understand references to Up From Sloth and the Crusade For Moorish Dignity.

One friend hated it the first time around, then loved it nine years later on attempt number two.  I’m still not sure I believe him.

Some people just say, “I don’t get it.”

I don’t know if I “get it” either, but I can’t stop reading it.  This book has improved my life in many ways, and I suspect it’s had a deeper impact on me than I’m even aware of.

In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to take a closer look at the book itself, as well as the history of its author. I hope you’ll stick around, and if you’ve read it, please add to the discussion. I’m looking forward to it.