As the ghosts of Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain will attest, nothing sells like the untimely suicide of a young talent. Dunces was written in 1967. Its failure to be published contributed to Toole’s suicide in 1969 at the age of 32. It lay lost until his mother forced it on publisher Walker Percy in 1976, who was taken aback by its quality. Finally published in 1980, it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and sell hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide.
The trouble with doomed artists is the impossibility of separating the quality of the art with the dubious glamour of their demise. Is this book a true classic or a novelty? You needn’t read more than thirty pages to find out the answer. If we’re honest, even the most successful intelligent comedy novels often only make you smile, no matter how ingenious and thought provoking. This book had me laughing out loud, openly, in frankly embarrassingly situations. And I didn’t care.
Ignatius J Reilly is the bloated and warped anti-hero at the heart of the book. A gargantuan, green-capped, lumberjack-shirted vortex of hypochondria, misanthropy, contempt, intellectual precocity and intestinal problems. A thirty-year-old child-mountain wallowing in a bedroom riddled with sweat and fouler fluids, Ignatius bellows at his mother to pander to his imperious whims whilst writing off scurrilous texts decrying anything and everything in the modern age.
Ignatius has an exquisitely realised world-view venerating the medieval ideals of Boethius and Aquinas, whilst having the bad fortune to be born into working-class 1960s New Orleans. He sees the Reformation, Renaissance and all forms of “progress” as rank downfalls in mankind’s history, culminating in the current nadir of plastic, pop, and commercial cinema, against which he spends his every moment in a spluttering and flatulent rage. But circumstances are about to force Reilly to get a job and collide with the fetidity of the real world. Who will come off worse?
Toole’s invigorating prose breathes into this rabble a convincing life, as well as the surrounding cast of crooks, gays, lesbians, black factory workers, and the everyday inhabitants of a gruff, crumbling and seedy New Orleans. His descriptive powers flow graphically and beautifully, and he also knows how to string together a multi-layered narrative too. The tone sometimes approaches the lyrical deadbeat sensitivity of his contemporary Hubert Selby, before launching into a genuinely outrageous scatology more extreme than that other 60s trailblazer Joe Orton. Incidentally, the character of Jones, the sardonic and fatalistic black vagrant who somehow ends up just behind Reilly after every shit-storm he causes, is a remarkably well drawn and unpatronising portrait of a black man for a white writer in the 60s, despite being the “wise heart” amid the chaos often assigned to such figures.
But frankly, for all the quality of its narration, one thing elevates this book to true brilliance, and that’s the perfection of its central character. Ignatius J. Reilly is quite simply one of the all time great comic characters. A true monster, whose excesses appal, enthral and entertain equally. Toole pulls off one of the trickiest jobs in literature, creating a true anti-hero, a loathsome individual whom we nonetheless love. Such characters intrigue because the power of their personality, rank as it is, offers an alluring contrast to their surroundings, which are also unappealing yet soulless and drab with it. Their evil becomes “the curious attractiveness of others” as Wilde had it.
Indeed, the criticisms of society by the mad can be more poignant than anyone else’s. Reilly, by selfishly opting out of society, has not a single constraint around him, which is both absurd and yet liberating. For all his arrogance, he is a true innocent, and endearing as all innocents are.
Besides, despite being so reactionary that he derides the invention of soap, Ignatius’ rejection of modernity is so extreme he ends up backing curiously progressive causes by default, leading a strike of black workers at Levy Pants which he entitles “the Crusade for Moorish Dignity”, and attempting to stage a mass infiltration of the world’s armed forces with homosexuals to bring down global government, based on that demographic’s perceived love of uniforms.
The open-ended conclusion leaves a continued scope for Ignatius to continue his psychotic blasts against existence. The adventures of the malodorous medievalist could have grown into one of the great pantheons of comic literature. Indeed I get the impression Toole had high hopes for such an idea as he completed his work. It’s difficult to see how the author of something like this couldn’t.. Finishing this book I felt genuinely sad, both that a mind capable of such humour was shortly about to snuff itself out, and also, selfishly, at the further works we have been denied as a result.
I had my own Reilly-esque moment of horror on hearing that Hollywood was to get its filthy mitts on him. One of Ignatius’ daily hobbies is to turn up at the cinema to catch some particularly crass modern film so as to scream “Oh my God!” “This is even worse than I thought!” “They should all be gassed!” and other such constructive criticisms throughout. This is comedy at its most pitch-black, getting its laughs from a morbidly obese, clinically paranoid, borderline psychopathic social inadequate and the ways in which he mistreats his mother. To get an idea of the depths it can sink, at one point Reilly wanks off thinking about his dog. And yet he alludes to medieval philosophical texts well beyond the usual silver screen remit. Call me a pessimist but I don’t think the film makers will get an ounce of either the book’s black heart or vibrant brain. I predict a pale, slapstick shadow of its forbear.
Let’s hope that, as often, I’m wrong. If it’s good enough to get even a small number to discover the original masterpiece then I will extend a warm, unprejudiced welcome, qualities most gloriously lacking in its unforgettable protagonist.