THIS NOVEL IS A CORKER. It is a gross farce, a blustering satire, an epic comedy, a rumbling, roaring avalanche of a book that begins with a solitary fat man but quickly picks up cops and B-girls, clerks and capitalists, most of the "deviates" and "degenerates" of the French Quarter of New Orleans, and keeps right on gathering momentum until it sweeps away everything, including the most innocent of bystanders, the reader, in its path.
The fat man is the hero of the novel, Ignatius J. Reilly, an apocalyptic slob, a 31-year-old virgin whose girlfriend believes that sex is the sovereign remedy for all ills, a momma's boy whose lumber jacket was stolen from him in a men's room on his one and only trip beyond the city limits of New Orleans, a master of arts who is writing a history of western civilization: "With the breakdown of the medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy." This mighty work is a repudiation of the modern age, which has treated Ignatius so badly that his pyloric valve regularly snaps shut and fills his stomach with trapped gas. Ignatius bloats. He bloats, he belches, he is subject to massive flatulence, but he toils away at his history, writing on Big Chief tablets at the rate of six paragraphs a month, sallying forth now and then to eructate and fulminate at the neighborhood movie house, until he is unexpectedly "faced with the perversion of having to GO TO WORK."
It would be impossible to explain adequately how misadventures snowball, how Ignatius becomes the leader of a misbegotten strike called the Crusade for Moorish Dignity, how the bun compartment of his hot dog cart becomes the repository for pornographic pictures, how the woman in those pictures happens to be posing with Ignatius' very own deluxe edition of Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, how the campaign to Save the World Through Degeneracy is launched, how it ends with Ignatius staggering out of a strip joint, a cockatoo tugging at his pirate's earring, and collapsing "like a dead cow" in front of a bus named Desire. It would be impossible to explain how Ignatius inspires a sporting tycoon, charms a compleat homosexual named Dorian Greene, jinxes an undercover cop, or wins a citizenship award for a black porter. It would be impossible, that is, to explain this fantastic plot so that it sounded anything but absurd. It is absurd, perfectly absurd, but it is also perfectly inevitable.
One of the pleasures of reading this novel is to discover that inevitability. A related, higher pleasure is to meet with benign absurdity. A Confederacy of Dunces has very little in common with black humor, where cruelty so often prevails. In Toole's novel, an emotion like sadness makes itself felt; these characters meet only at the absurd level of plot. The sadness arises from the sense of all the connections missed, of possibilities closed, of lives gone wrong, of immense human resources being wasted.
This, then, is more than just a funny book. Toole's world is, after all, the sad old world, and it reduces Ignatius' philosophy to the level of the bumper sticker: Love It or Leave It. Ignatius loves it. When Ignatius leaves his fetid room, he is choosing the modern age over the Middle Ages, the actual over the ideal, the thing itself over the concept. Out on the streets, out there where Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste really are running amuck, Ignatius is right at home.
A Confederacy of Dunces almost sounds as if it could have been written by Walker Percy. It wasn't, but Percy has written a foreword to the book, and he yields the city to Toole: "No one has ever or ever will capture the particularity of the backstreets, middle- and lower-class whites, blacks and other ethnics of New Orleans as Toole has."
And Percy has done more than provide a blurb for this novel. He discovered it. A persistent mother, convinced that her son has written a great novel, delivered to Percy the smudged manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces. She had to act in her son's behalf because John Kennedy Toole died, a suicide, in 1969. This is a first novel that will have no successors, but it doesn't need them. It stands on its own.