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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A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates

A Widow's Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates
A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates

“Give sorrow words,” William Shakespeare says. “The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”

Joyce Carol Oates gives her sorrow words in A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, which chronicles the death of her longtime husband, Ontario Review editor, Ray Smith, and the first year of Oates’ widowhood.

“Widowhood is the punishment for having been a wife,” Oates writes in this powerful and poignant memoir.

If life were fair, couples that have been married for decades (Oates and Smith were together for 47 years and 25 days, Oates frequently points out) should be allowed to die together.

But life is anything but fair, and it’s the job of survivors to carry on after the loss of a loved one, no mater how impossible that may seem, as Oates observes:

   “Losing a spouse of 47 years is like losing a part of yourself— the most valuable part. What is left behind seems so depleted, broken … But this determination to manage—to cope—to do as much unassisted as possible— is the widow’s prerogative.”

Losing a spouse can drain life of flavor and meaning, leaving the survivor a shell of themselves, as Oates notes:

   “As a widow I will be reduced to a world of things. And these things retain but the faintest glimmer of their original identity and meaning as in a dead and desiccated husk of something once organic there might be discerned a glimmer of its original identity and meaning.”

Oates also examines the frailty of life and the delicate balance of bio-chemistry that makes us human:

Harrowing to think that our identities— the selves people believe they recognize in us: our “personalities”— are a matter of oxygen, water and food and sleep— deprived of just one of these our physical beings begin to alter almost immediately— soon, to others we are no longer “ourselves”— and yet, who else are we?

It’s impossible not to compare Oates’ A Widow’s Story to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Both women are literary powerhouses examining the depths of grief following the death of their husbands. Oates subtlety references Didion’s work, and her own “magical thinking” during her husband’s short illness and death. Oates and Didion both imagine their husbands “just coming home,” putting an end to the endless nightmare of widowhood. Magical thinking is a nice way of saying delusional or wishful thinking.

Widowhood forces a kind of exile, an otherness, as the widow moves through day-to-day life like a ghost.

   “I could be a paraplegic observing dancers— it isn’t even envy I feel for them, almost a kind of disbelief, they are so utterly different from me, and so oblivious.”

And a life devoid of meaning, isn’t really a life at all, Oates says:

“To be human is to live with meaning. To live without meaning is to live sub-humanly.”

“Giving sorrow words” is both painful and healing, and perhaps the only way back to the “land of the living” for a writer, as Oates notes in a letter to a fellow author.

   “It’s difficult to write when there’s no joy. (I haven’t gotten started again, myself.) Yet it’s our only way out. Isn’t it?”

Though deeply steeped in sorrow, The Widow’s Story: A Memoir is ultimately a story of survival and rebirth. Oates knows whom to thank for helping her through the early days of widowhood.

   “The blunt truth is: I would (very likely) not be alive except for my friends.”

She also finds recovery and reconnection by embracing her late husband’s favorite hobby: gardening:

   “A gardener is one for whom the prospect of the future is not threatening but happy.”

In the end, Oates finds the strength to carry on, even if it’s a “half-life” frequently filled with sorrow and loss.

   “This is my life now. Absurd, but unpredictable. Not absurd because unpredictable but unpredictable because absurd. If I have lost the meaning of my life, and the love of my life, I might still find small treasured things amid the spilled and pilfered trash.”

We can all appreciate the world forged from Oates’ personal pain, a world where life is simultaneously absurd, unpredictable and incredibility precious.

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I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee

I'm Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee.
I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee.

What if you awoke one morning to find your wife — your soulmate, the love of your life, the person you know better than anyone else — is no longer herself? Instead, she insists she’s a seven-year-old named Lily.

This is the simple-yet-effective premise that drives I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee.

Narrator Patrick Burke (a nod to fellow novelist Kealan Patrick Burke) wakes after a night of passionate lovemaking to find his wife, Sam, is gone, and Lily has apparently taken over her body. What do you do when your wife breaks from reality and insists she’s a little girl? Take her to a doctor … then take her toy shopping!

The horror of caring for a loved one who is “gone, yet still here” lies at the heart of I’m Not Sam. The relationships we cherish most in life are frail, and without warning a loved one can suddenly become a stranger. Don’t think so? Talk to anyone who loves a person with mental illness or Alzheimer’s disease.

Patrick is able to “cure” his wife using a chilling and disturbing brand of therapy. Unfortunately the cure may cost them their marriage, and will forever change Patrick and Sam’s perceptions of one another.

The novella’s close, told from Sam’s point of view, feels a bit forced, but Ketchum and McKee deliver with the meat of the story, and its haunting look at the inherent frailty of our most cherished personal relationships.

BOBBY’S BOTTOM LINE: This terse thriller will leave you wanting to hug your loved ones!

Zumba Class Transforms From The Inside Out

Yeah, I Zumba. No, it's not pretty.
Yeah, I Zumba. No, it’s not pretty.

When my wife gets into something, she really gets into it.

Sometimes she immerses herself in a new writer, or a musical artist, or a television show. I was thrilled when she got into Breaking Bad and crock-pot cooking. Her love of Carol King, Nancy Grace, and Auntie Mame…not so much.

My wife’s latest obsession is Zumba, and this dance fitness class is changing her, both inside and out.

And—by the power of holy matrimony—it’s changing me, too.

Zumba Love

Ever since my wife suffered a stroke nearly two years ago, we’ve been trying to live a healthier lifestyle. I joined a gym. My wife cut out sweets, and dropped 25 pounds. We recently quit smoking.

Still, I was surprised when my wife said she wanted to give Zumba a try. Her post-stroke recovery has been amazing, but she’s still unsteady on her feet sometimes. I was worried a fast-paced workout might overwhelm her.

Zumba is essentially aerobics class with loud Latin music. In fact, Zumba was created in the mid-’90s when aerobics instructor Alberto “Beto” Perez forget his standard music, and had to improvise a workout class on the fly using the salsa and merengue tapes he had in his backpack. His students loved moving to the high-energy Latin beats, and the “Zumba Fitness Party” was born.

My wife went to a local Zumba class “just to observe,” and was immediately hooked. She joined the fitness party that night, and came home smiling, breathless, and sweaty.

“It was so much fun!” she said. “It wasn’t like exercise. It was like dancing!”

Her enthusiasm was infectious, so I agreed to go to a Zumba class with her.

One class.

Geezers Laugh At Me

My wife’s Zumba instructor, the amazing Mindy Gansley, teaches a Zumba Gold class on weekday mornings. Zumba Gold is a milder version of Zumba, geared toward seniors and others who might have mobility issues.

This will be a breeze, I thought. I do 45 minutes on the elliptical at the gym. I can shuffle around with a bunch of geezers for an hour. No problem.

Yes problem. I’m sure this won’t shock anyone, but I was wrong.

Zumba kicked my ass. I was a huffing, puffing, sweaty mess after two songs. I flailed about, trying to “keep my core tight,” but feeling very jiggly. I’m a musician—why couldn’t I keep the beat or find the rhythm? I spent the whole class trying to mimic Mindy, and failing to catch up. I felt like an uncoordinated dork, and I’m sure I looked like one, too. I got the feeling the senior citizens in class were laughing behind my back

“I should’ve brought my sweat towel,” I told my wife after class. I always brought one to the gym, but didn’t think I’d need it for Zumba. Silly me. I was drippy and gross.

“Next time?” She asked, a bit of hope creeping into her voice.

I’m a lousy dancer. There’s a big difference between playing music and moving to it. And salsa and merengue isn’t my favorite style either. (How about Heavy Metal Zumba? Anybody with me?)

Let’s Dance

But I knew I’d be back at Zumba again. Why?

Because watching my wife move to the music, smiling from ear to ear, and beaming like a schoolgirl, was a sight to behold. It was like traveling back to a less troubled time, before she started dating a pudgy musician with two left feet, back when she would cut loose and really dance.

She looked as graceful as before her stroke, as carefree as before we had kids, happy in a way I hadn’t seen her look in far too long. Her beauty stole my breath and got my heart racing more completely than any cardio workout ever could.

I don’t really care what effect Zumba has on my wife’s body. I thought she looked great when she was 25 pounds heavier (the weight went to all the right places, and her curves were kickin’!)

But I like the effect Zumba has on my wife’s inner self, like it’s reawakening some dormant spirit, re-nourishing her soul. Damn, I’m a fool. Why didn’t I take her dancing more often? Maybe there’s still time.

“Absolutely! I’ll Zumba with you again,” I said. “I’ll dance with you anytime, my love. Always. Forever.”

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Originally published in Wayne TODAY, February 2013