A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

 A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is funny, wise, and as close to a perfect novel as you’re likely to find.

Protagonist Ignatius C. Reilly is a bloated buffoon, a man-baby who lives with his mother, has a troubled digestive valve that causes him to burp and fart with great frequency, and possesses one of the most “unique” worldviews you’re likely to find.

Ignatius is loaf completely at ease with his loafishness:

“I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman. “In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

Ignatius is like a giant child when he considers his career options and argues with his mother:

I suspect that something like a newspaper route would be rather agreeable.

“I dare you to come out in that shredded nightgown and get me!” Ignatius answered defiantly and stuck out his massive pink tongue.

Above all, A Confederacy of Dunces is funny. Laugh out loud is an overused phrase, but COD will make you LOL for realz, yo. The situations are so absurd, the characters so odd, and the dialogue veers between biting satire punctuated by unexpected blasts of pee-your-pants profanity.

“Go dangle your withered parts over the toilet!” Ignatius screamed savagely. Miss Trixie shuffled away.

No mater what the problem, Ignatius always finds a way to blame others.

“Employers sense in me a denial of their values.” He rolled over onto his back. “They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe.

You must realize the fear and hatred which my weltanschauung instills in people.

He twisted his face into a mask of suffering. There was no use fighting Fortuna until the cycle was over. “You realize, of course, that this is all your fault. 

“You’re full of bullshit.”

“I? The incident is sociologically valid. The blame rests upon our society.”

Sometimes COD goes for screwball comedy and slapstick. Taken as a whole, COD is the mother of all farces.

When he’s not avoiding work or fighting with his mother, Ignatius plots against Myrna, a radical student he once attended classes with. The romantic ending of COD is anticipated but still manages to be unexpectedly satisfying.

Dr. Talc idly wondered if they (Iggy and Myrna) had married each other. Each certainly deserved the other.

Through Myrna’s letters we see she has true insight into Ignatius’ personality:

This “automobile accident” is a new crutch to help you make excuses for your meaningless, impotent existence.

A good, explosive orgasm would cleanse your being and bring you out of the shadows.

Great Oedipus bonds are encircling your brain and destroying you

Ignatius, a very bad crack-up is on the way. You must do something. Even volunteer work at a hospital would snap you out of your apathy,

The valve closes because it thinks it is living in a dead organism. Open your heart, Ignatius, and you will open your valve.

 

Behind his absurdity, Ignatius is sad and lonely, a sorrow that stems from his isolationism:

We both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Myrna was, you see, terribly engaged in her society; I, on the other hand, older and wiser, was terribly dis-engaged.

I really have had little to do with them, for I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.

I don’t dance. I never dance. I have never danced in my life.

COD is also a love letter to Toole’s native New Orleans:

Patrolman Mancuso inhaled the moldy scent of the oaks and thought, in a romantic aside, that St. Charles Avenue must be the loveliest place in the world.

New Orleans is, on the other hand, a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive. At least its climate is mild.

The balconies of the old buildings hung over my head like dark branches in an allegorical forest of evil.

I won’t get into the tragic personal history of author John Kenndy Toole. The story behind his career and the publication of COD is itself an impossible tale of heartbreaking genius. But the toxic mother-son relationship at the heart of this novel certainly is rife with autobiographical elements.

Ms. Reilly laments Ignatius’ weak work ethic.

“My heart’s broke.”

“Ain’t he writing something?”

“Some foolishness nobody never gonna feel like reading.”

Fortunately, the real-life Thelma Toole felt differently about her son’s work.

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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

The magic of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling lies in its combination of simplicity and familiarity. Like a three-chord pop song, Harry Potter sticks in your head, causing pleasant sensations as it bounces around your brain.

We know this story; an unlikely hero with a regal destiny is sent on an epic quest. We know these characters, too, from source material as diverse as the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, Greek mythology, and Disney movies.

The star of the show, of course, is Harry Potter himself, a downtrodden elementary school student who must contend with the sudden responsibility of fulfilling a magical destiny. The well-known coming-of-age tale of finding (and re-inventing) yourself in a new school gives Harry Potter’s high fantasy a connection to real-world grade school drama, which is what makes this book so appealing to readers of all ages.

Harry embarks upon a hero’s quest to find the elusive Sorcerer’s Stone.

The Stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the Elixir of Life, which will make the drinker immortal.

Harry Potter has stock villains (the real ones, and the ones you only think are bad) and stock friends. Even the guard dog feels like a hybrid of the Minotaur and Cerebrus. Bumbling-but-lovable sidekick, Hagrid, strikes me as part Luca Brasi from The Godfather, and part Bigfoot from The Howard Stern Show.

“Now, don’t ask me anymore,” said Hagrid gruffly. “That’s top secret, that is.”

There’s the wise and patient old teacher, Dumbledore, who walks a trail blazed by Gandolf and Yoda, and gets the lion’s share of the book’s most meaningful quotes:

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.

To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

“The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”

“Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

This last one is interesting, since Rowling plays an annoying name game with the characters in Harry Potter. The school bully is named Draco Malfoy and his thug friends are Crabbe and Goyle. These characters are snakes in the grass and they live in Slytherin House. The school nerd is Neville Longbottom. A wicked teacher is named Severus Snape. Maybe younger readers find these over-the-top character names endearing, but they took me out of the story a bit every time I encountered them.

Naming quibbles aside, Rowling’s writing is sharp, lean, and constantly moving forward. This is the stuff that page-turners are made off. Keeping her younger readers in mind, Rowling sometimes goes straight for juvenile gross-out:

“Can you smell something?” Harry sniffed and a foul stench reached his nostrils, a mixture of old socks and the kind of public toilet no one seems to clean.

He bent down and pulled his wand out of the troll’s nose. It was covered in what looked like lumpy gray glue. “Urgh – troll boogers.” He wiped it on the troll’s trousers.

Other times, Harry Potter skirts the fringes of horror fiction (while conjuring the legend of Edward Mordake):

Harry would have screamed, but he couldn’t make a sound. Where there should have been a back to Quirrell’s head, there was a face, the most terrible face Harry had ever seen. It was chalk white with glaring red eyes and slits for nostrils, like a snake.

And sometimes Harry Potter brushes against the madness of Alice in Wonderland.

A piercing, bloodcurdling shriek split the silence — the book was screaming! Harry snapped it shut, but the shriek went on and on, one high, unbroken, earsplitting note.

Part of the fun of Harry Potter is the interactive games, wizarding spells, and puzzle solving that keeps the reader engaged the way an old Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen mystery might.

“Wingardium Leviosa!”

Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi.

Dumbledore serves up the novel’s main theme—undying love versus ancient evil—for young hero, Harry:

He (Voldemort) didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.

Isn’t this the wish of all living beings, to be loved by our mothers, and to be watched over by those who came before us? To be marked by a love so powerful and eternal it will protect and guide you through life?

It’s no wonder the Harry Potter franchise is so popular. It contains characters and situations we can all relate too (even if they’re cloaked in the fantastic) while quietly fulfilling humanity’s deepest wish.

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