A Place in the Shade

My thoughts and stories; no more, no less.

A Group of Idiots: or John Kennedy Toole Said it Better. July 7, 2011

I pay close attention to lists of “must read” books. I consider myself educated and well read, and I hate it when I miss a reference to classic pop culture (“classic pop culture” – now there’s a phrase. But I think you know what I mean). I am usually pleased to discover I have read at least half of the books on any given list of essential literature. Some have been required reading in school, others I’ve read on my own, or because I saw it on some other list and decided I’d better get to it. Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is one of those books that keeps popping up that I’ve never read, and I’ve been curious about it for quite a while.

One of the things my wasband and I share is a love of books and reading. It brought us together, and we still exchange and share and recommend, knowing each other’s tastes well. It was, and remains, the best part of the relationship. So when I saw Dunces on the wasband’s shelf, I asked to borrow it.

I picked up the Pulitzer-Prize-winning bestseller, not knowing what to expect. Political tome? Cultural observation? Social commentary? Dramatic fiction? After all the years of seeing the title on lists, I still had absolutely no idea what it was about, and frankly, the porcine cartoon character on the cover wasn’t telling me much that was appealing.

I read up on it a bit, and became interested in the story behind it; how Toole’s mother found a publisher for it after he had committed suicide at age 39, and the fact that it was set in New Orleans, a place I knew little about. Reviews called it original and funny. It became the first book on my summer reading list.

I was soaked in it for the first third, enjoying the writing. I like Toole’s phrasing, how he weaves together words and sentences, descriptions of character and place. It was intricate and interesting, yet never hard to follow. This element of it kept me turning the pages.

But I kept putting it down in disgust. I could not develop any affection or interest in the main character. Ignatius J. Reilly is narcissistic, ego-driven and smug. He’s the epitome of arrogance, slovenliness, snobbery and a certain kind of intellectual self-indulgence. I wanted to skip his navel-gazing “journal entries,” but found that they drove the plot. Finding a character in a story that I can like, relate to, or at least find interesting is a very important part of any reading experience for me. I closed Dunces, and then opened it up, again and again, looking for other characters or a more dynamic plot to keep me interested. I really couldn’t find any. A few other personalities had appealing characteristics, but nothing that held me long enough. Ignatius dominates, and the others don’t have enough presence in the story to hold my interest. I kept reading in the hopes that something would move the story forward and around, giving it some meaning for me. I understand now that it is picaresque novel, and a satire, but I don’t like feeling like I need to take a shower after every chapter. Maybe it’s just not my kind of book.

I’ve stopped at page 242. I can’t decide what to do. In the 2 weeks it has been sitting in my house, I have read seven other books. I can’t believe I have gotten this far into a book and don’t want to finish it. At this point, I would normally just power through. I keep looking at it, picking it up and moving it, watching it travel from the coffee table to my bedside to my summer chaise lounge in the garden. I don’t really care what happens to any of the characters, and I keep thinking I’ve gotten enough of Toole’s writing style to suffice. And yet….I am curious. Where is Toole going to take these noxious people? A part of me is determined to finish it no matter what – I will not let it beat me. Another part of me knows there are million books to read, and I don’t want to waste any more of my precious summer reading time on this. The wasband hasn’t read it yet, what do I tell him? Perhaps I should read it simply for the sake of the writing. In the meantime, I’ll turn to the biography of Gypsy Rose Lee at the top of my stack.