When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
— Jonathan Swift
Those are the opening lines of one of the best books I’ve read in a while– John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a grand tale of eccentrics and borderline loony characters in ’60s New Orleans.
Toole wrote it in the ’60s and then promptly killed himself. A decade later, his mother sent a smeared carbon copy of the novel to Walker Percy (author of that other New Orleans tale, the story of my life, The Moviegoer). His mother insisted it was a masterpiece. Percy read it on a whim, and agreed. It was a masterpiece.
It is a masterpiece.
Percy published it, and it won a Pulitzer Prize.
There are no minor characters in A Confederacy of Dunces. While it is ostensibly the story of 30-year old Ignatius J. Reilly, a large, lazy Don Quixote, who would rebel against all the failings of the modern world, its offenses against “theology and geometry”, if only he could work up the energy to get out of his mother’s bedroom where he wrote about his troubles at great length on Big Chief tablets. When he finally does– to work in a garment company, to sell hot dogs, to rescue a woman, to launch a gay uprising– we discover the world is not ready for him, and he is certainly not ready for the world.
I did the audiobook for this one– audible had it as a freebie around Christmas. Ordinarily, I would not buy an audiobook from Audible— you can only listen to their files on certain authorized devices/players. I use eMusic; their audiobooks are MP3, so they work on any MP3 player.
The voice actor for this book– a Barrett Whitener– is extraordinary. He does male voices, female voices, and various New Orleans accents including Yat, a black night club janitor, and Reilly’s own (I hear his incredulous “Oh my god!” as I think about it).
Ignatius J. Reilly is an avid moviegoer. As is Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, the protagonist from his excellent The Moviegoer. Reilly and Bolling both lived in ’60s New Orleans. I like to imagine they happened to share a movie theater more than once. I hope their paths did not cross, for Bolling’s sake. To put it mildly, they would not have gotten along.
Many people have tried to make a movie based on A Confederacy of Dunces, but have not come close to succeeding. I have been wondering who I would cast in the various parts.
I can’t figure out who to cast as Ignatius and Irene Reilly, but I’m fairly certain about Kathy Bates as Santa Battaglia. Zach Galifianakis as Angelo Mancuso? Mos Def as Burma Jones? Jude Law as Gus Levy and Jullianne Moore as Mrs. Levy? Cloris Leachman as Miss Trixie? Is Winona Ryder too old for a cameo as Myrna Minkoff? I would have said Brittany Murphy as Darlene, but she’s no more. How about Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lana Lee?
Written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, of course.