The comedy of A Confederacy of Dunces is writ large in and between its many lines: a grand farce of overeducated white trash, corrupt law enforcement, exotic dancing and the nouveau riche in steamy New Orleans. The Pulitzer committee thought highly enough of Toole's comic prowess to give his only novel the Prize posthumously. Therein lies the tragedy of this huge and hugely funny book: John Kennedy Toole didn't live to see this now-classic novel published. He committed suicide in 1969 at the age of thirty-two. It was his mother who was responsible for bringing his book to public light, pestering the hell out of Walker Percy, who was teaching at Loyola in 1976, to read it until finally that distinguished author relented. In his foreword to A Confederacy of Dunces, Percy laments the body of work lost to the world of literature with the author's death, but rejoices "that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy is at least made available to a world of readers."
At the center of A Confederacy of Dunces is that contemptuous hypochondriac, that deadbeat ideologue, that gluttonous moocher Ignatius Reilly. A mountainous college graduate living off his mother's welfare check in her home on one of New Orleans seedy back streets. He spends most of his time waxing melodramatically philosophic, hiding out in the squalor of his bedroom, filling Big Chief writing tablets with his unique brand of Luddite/medievalist/anti-Enlightenment thought and penning incendiary letters to his sex-crazed ex-college-girlfriend Myrna Minkoff. His beleaguered mother by turns dotes and turns on him in their schizophrenic dance between adult child and aging parent.
Waiting on Canal Street for his mother to come back from an arthritis consultation with her doctor, Ignatius gets hauled off by a cop (who thinks the mustachioed mountain in tweed trousers, plaid flannel shirt and trademark green hunting cap looks suspicious). Thus begins a tailspin into one misadventure followed by another and another ad infinitum. Ignatius and his mother, traumatized by the event, step into a sleazy strip joint and drink themselves silly. As they leave, Mrs. Reilly promptly plows her Plymouth into a building.
The dollars in damages they need to pay for their little accident cannot be met by Mrs. Reilly's meager welfare check. So it is that Ignatius grudgingly begins a series of jobs that suck him ever-deeper into the seamy underbelly of 1960s New Orleans. Ignatius' impact leaves the poor souls in his wake insensible and gaping. His work at Levy Pants (file clerk) and for Paradise Vendors (hotdog-pushcart man) bring Ignatius to lead a workers' revolt and become an unwitting soft-core-porn distribution stooge. His arrogance (and flatulence) touch the people he encounters in horrible ways, yet his indignant, malicious blunders make it possible for those he's injured (intentionally or not) to come out better at the far end of the story.
Ignatius Reilly has got to be one of the most off-putting main characters in modern literature, but this hygenically-challenged intellectual oaf has something in common with a soap-opera vixen: you love to hate him. And he's got something in common with a train wreck: he makes you rubberneck and then you find you just can't look away. Ignatius' long-suffering but increasingly independent mother is the novel's unsung heroine. She's by turns insufferably dumb and surprisingly sly. Patrolman Mancuso's decline, fall, and eventual rise all derive from his brush with Ignatius, and his degradations at the behest of his police superiors has readers laughing behind their hands. You feel sorry for the guy, but (snigger) it's so damn funny! The black vagrant Jones is the only character in the whole bunch of idiots who can really see clearly, nevermind that he's forever looking out at the world through dark glasses and a cloud of his own cigarette smoke. A Confederacy of Dunces is simply and insistently a great, perfect comedy of errors and airs, a farce of Olympic proportions.