Book Review: John Kennedy Toole's winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, A Confederacy of Dunces
Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981 for A Confederacy of Dunces was a posthumous win for John Kennedy Toole; the book was written in 1963 and Toole committed suicide in 1969. It seems it’s possible Toole had become the victim of his own joke. In writing a very funny book about a brilliant sloth named Ignatius J. Reilly (who may actually have been one of the true geniuses that Jonathan Swift described as being able to be known “by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him”) Toole remained unable to convince anyone that he, Toole, was a “true genius.” Publishers looked at Toole’s book and said, “It’s funny! … but what’s it about?” subsequently not publishing the novel. This disappointment contributed to Toole’s downward slide over several years until his suicide. Later Toole’s mother got the book “discovered” through sheer persistence and it saw publication in 1980, winning the Pulitzer in 1981. Those who asked, “yeah, but what’s it about?” who weren’t forward-thinking enough to see the oncoming nihilism of the late 1970’s (and later the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld) have been left on the defense.
And, in my defense, I didn’t necessarily need the book to be about anything … but I also kind of did. That’s why I might be one of the dunces … I don’t know if the novel is really lacking an ending, if I’m just not able to see the perfection that it already represents, or even if Toole actually was trying to be funny. I do know I am very glad others were able to see something of the book’s enviable qualities and were in a position to get it published and grant it a major award because I quite enjoyed the book, but even still … Maybe the Coen Brothers will make a movie of it and shed some light (through the cracks) on the mysteries of Ignatius J. Reilly’s (and John Kennedy Toole’s) “true genius.” I would definitely go to see it. I think us “dunces” owe him that much.
Craig B is a thirty-something lover of books, movies, and rock and roll whose grandmother still worries that he might not be eating enough. (Love you, Grandma!) He lives with his charming wife in the small town of Berne, IN (in sight of the clock tower) where he busies himself keeping the Roses of Sharon in check and training his chinchilla in the ancient arts of the Ninja. Craig’s current favorite book is Buddenbrooks
by Thomas Mann.