To begin the new year, I decided to read books that I love, but haven’t read in a long time. This comedic masterpiece didn’t disappoint. It may be the fourth time I’ve read it, and I’ve long since lost the old edition that I dropped in a bathtub or two along the way. It’s so different from East of Eden. The major reason is its use of dialogue to construct the story. Steinbeck uses talk sparingly and prefers to tell us what characters think and why they act from a master narrative perspective. John Kennedy Toole deploys conversation in a matter of fact way throughout the story to shape its characters with warts and all. He’s got an amazing ear for dialect, reframing words so that they sit in your consciousness ever after: potatis salad; communiss. You actually hear these people talk, and the novel moves along by means of their conversations and ruminations alone, for the most part, rather than by the “big story” machinations that Steinbeck uses.
It’s also a small story with not a lot of aspirations to tell us something bigger about ourselves, unlike East of Eden. It’s also hilarious. There aren’t a lot of books that have ever prompted me to laugh out loud, but this is one of them. The protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly, one of the great characters of literature – dislikable, lovable, inexcusable, he refuses the boxes a reader may use to confine him. He’s obsessed with obscure medieval philosophy, he has troubling sexual interests, he clings to distressing beliefs about race and labor. He lives with his mother. He lives in New Orleans, a city that he describes as “famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, Antichrists, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians.” And if you love New Orleans (as I do), you’ll find this true and part of the appeal.
This is a book whose every page demands an out loud reading to your loved one, who may quickly tire of such an interactive experience. Acknowledging that, I’ll only highlight a few things, with a spoiler alert.
First is Ignatius’ crusade to create global peace through sodomy. After suffering various indignities in the labor market, he decides to lead the charge to elevate what we might now call sexual minorities (he calls them the “deviates”) to political power. It’s a wonderful riposte to counter accomodationist calls for “don’t ask don’t tell.”
“When we have at last overthrown all existing governments, the world will enjoy not war but global orgies conducted with the utmost protocol and the most truly international sprit, for these people do transcend simple national differences. Their minds are on one goal, they truly are united; they think as one.”
As things progress, his mother (who is a wonderfully rendered character, with her own hopes and dreams being systematically crushed by her oaf of a son) considers having him committed to a psychiatric institution. Of this, he says:
“Do you think I have a problem? The only problem those people have anyway is that they don’t like new cars and hair sprays. That’s why they are put away. They make the other members of the society fearful. Every asylum in this nation is filled with poor souls who simply cannot stand lanolin, cellophane, plastic, television, and subdivisions.”
As true today as when it was written. Though we’d now include cellphones, Netflix, Cardi B, selfies, and capri pants.
It’s a brilliant work, made sad by the author’s suicide at a relatively young age. How does he manage to conjure such a wonderful and horrible person into being with such pitch-perfect acumen? I am planning to read another 98 books this year, and I am quite sure that I will not read another that so brilliantly uses dialogue to establish characters.
It’s a perfect book. It doesn’t overreach, but instead sits resolutely in a place and time with an invitation to join in. It brings characters to life gently and lovingly, no matter how foreign or dislikeable.