Sixty years of A Confederacy of Dunces' Ignatius J. Reilly

"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." Johnathon Swift, epigraph to A Confederacy of Dunces.

Sixty years ago, John Kennedy Toole first wrote A Confederacy of Dunces while living in Puerto Rico, teaching English to Spanish-speaking draftees as part of his military duty and after finishing a master's degree in Medieval studies. Toole took his life in 1969 at the age of thirty-two. The brilliantly uncanny and hilarious cult book won the Pulitzer Prize one year after publication in 1980, introducing the world to the eccentric, misunderstood, and hardly lazy genius Ignatius J. Reilly. I say hardly lazy because many reviews and characterizations of Reilly highlight his sedentary life when his mind and body billowed with activity – even if the action was centered in his filthy room or capacious mind. Slovenly, yes. Lazy, not a chance. Numerous attempts to bring the novel to the silver screen have failed. Some say the story is cursed.

Thirty-year-old Reilly, an unlikely anti-hero, with his problematic pyloric valve (read: gassy and flatulent), a biting commentary on anything and everything (pretentious ranting), fraught relationship with his mother Irene, and an infatuation with "Lady Fortuna," a literary device employed by Boethius in Reilly's favorite book, The Consolation of Philosophy, is an unforgettable character of epic proportions.

While the narrative is parochially fast-paced, introducing a slew of unique and memorable creatures from the French Quarter, the particular dialects of New Orleans – creatively invoked by Toole, are also central personas in the book, characters in and of themselves. The book's living personalities include "the cantankerous Claude Robichaux, who believes everyone to be a communist; the doltish police officer, Mancuso, who is the butt of all jokes at his precinct; and the put-upon Irene, who seeks solace in the wine she keeps hidden in the stove. But none compare to the pompous, booming Ignatius, always expostulating about a world he believes has lost its values while overlooking his idleness. Asked by Mancuso about his lack of employment, he replies, haughtily: "When my brain begins to reel from my literary labours, I make an occasional cheese dip."

I remember reading this book as a freshman in college, sitting in the back of the room in Speech 101 and periodically laughing out loud. I flunked out of college after that, thinking that university learning had been emptied of geometry and theology, as Ignatius often lamented – and, perhaps, because I chose to read novels about speechifying sorts in class rather than pay attention to the speechifying Communications professor.

Toole imagined Ignatius and the dunces organized in confederacy against his genius in 1963. More than forty years after its publication, the numerous failed attempts to translate it into a celluloid production have included possible participation by the likes of Will Farrell, John Candy, John Belushi, Richard Pryor, John Waters, Chris Farley, John Goodman, Lily Tomlin, Drew Barrymore, Mos Def, Olympia Dukakis, James Bobin, and Zach Galifianakis. As reported in Slatein 2006, "Throughout Dunces' history, studio chiefs have been reluctant to bet on a colloquial story involving an overweight intellectual who avoids sex and is fond of alluding to Roman philosophers. In many cases, the suits simply didn't get the book."

Recently, I listened to the first audio version of the book narrated by Barrett Whitener. Audible does not allow access to the second Penguin version read by comedian Reginald D. Hunter in 2022. I have been searching the web vigorously. Penguin/Random House Audio advertises the book, but no affiliated platforms have the recording available in the US. "Due to rights restrictions we require a UK billing address to supply eBooks/eAudiobooks" is the message I received when trying to download.

Any help from the Boing world would be appreciated. For more on the problematics of Audible as a behemoth monopoly-driven platform, check out Cory Doctorow's essay, "Why None of My Books are Available on Audible and why Amazon owes me $3,218.55," – available on Audible.

The backstory to the novel's publication is equally remarkable. Toole's mother insisted that her son was a genius and hounded novelist Walker Percy to read the book. Percy read, wrote the foreword, and then worked with Kent Carroll, a young editor at Grove Press, to introduce the world to the capacious, suspicious, and behemoth imagination of Ignatius J. Reilly.

In 2022, Kent Carroll and Jodee Blanco published I, John Kennedy Toole, "the novelized true story of the funny, tragic, riveting narrative behind the making of an American masterpiece. The novel traces Toole's life in New Orleans through his adolescence, his stay at Columbia University in New York, his attempts to escape the burden of his demanding mother and his weak father, his retreat into a world of his creation, and finally, the invention of astonishing characters that came to living reality for both readers (and the author himself) in his prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces."