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John Kennedy Toole


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A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)


A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)

American Literature

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)

Tragic life, comic novelist

It's a great story that has been told many times and it's all true.

Novelist Walker Percy was teaching at New Orleans' Loyola University in 1976 when he started being hounded by a woman who wanted him to read a manuscript written by her late son over a decade earlier. It was a great novel, she said. Percy tried to get rid of her but she persisted, basically stalking him, until he agreed to look at it. The manuscript was a messy carbon copy. He hoped to read just a few paragraphs before dismissing the work, but to his amazement he found himself reading on and on.

Percy helped get A Confederacy of Dunces published in 1980, and it became a publishing sensation, winning a Pulitzer Prize twelve years after the author's death.

It has also won a fanatical following since then.

The novel describes the comic adventures of a gigantically fat, intellectually twisted young man, Ignatius J. Reilly, who lives and battles with his mother. Occasionally he sallies from their apartment to take assorted jobs where he proceeds to turn everyone's life upside down. The character invites comparisons to Falstaff and Don Quixote.

Now, the kicker is, it was discovered the grotesque novel was somewhat autobiographical—minus the comedy. Toole who killed himself in 1969 had worked at various jobs, considered his life a failure and was constantly at odds with his domineering, nutty mother.

Yes, the same mother who championed his work after his death, got him published and devoted the rest of her life to proclaiming her son's genius. In Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole, the biography which tracked down the details of the short and hitherto little-known life, Mrs. Toole comes across as a terror who practically drove her son to suicide.

A Confederacy of Dunces has been in development as a movie almost since the book was published, with John Belushi, John Goodman, John Candy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Will Ferrell, Chris Farley and Zach Galifianakis touted at various times to play Ignatius. (Note the high number of early deaths among the proposed leading men—which has led to fears the book is jinxed.) Forty years after publication, no film adaptation has ever reached production.

The novel was, however, adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and successfully produced on stage in 2015.

An earlier and quite different novel, The Neon Bible, also unpublished during the author's life, has its avid fans too but is considered by critics an immature work of Toole's teen years. It was published in 1989 and made into a film in 1996.

— Eric