is a curious truth, long-noted by poets, that the subjects that elicit the
greatest number of words are actually better addressed by brevity. I
remember an issue of Granta from some years back dedicated to
The Family. On the front cover, they had quoted the terse Philip Larkin: “They fuck you
up.” I am excerpting this week from John Kennedy Toole’s A
Confederacy of Dunces, a very funny book that’s hard to laugh at, at
least if you know that its author committed suicide before the book was
ever published. In the spirit of economy of words, then, I say this about
death: it just ain’t right. It ain’t right when the young and innocent die, it
ain’t right when the old and wizened die and it ain’t right when an
unknown comic genius kills himself and never gets to see how beloved his
book will become.
Walker Percy, in Confederacy’s introduction,* * *
describes his attempts to avoid reading the manuscript of a book an older
woman brought to his office at Loyola Unviversity. The book was by her
dead son, and like anyone rational, Percy was afraid of what he’d have to
say to her if he actually read the thing. But he did read it, and recognized
immediately the playful, goofy, tragic triumph that is Toole’s novel.
Thelma Toole was right to be persistent; we have her to thank that the
world still has her son.
From A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Ignatius pulled his flannel nightshirt up and looked at his bloated stomach. He often
bloated while lying in bed in the morning contemplating the unfortunate turn that events had
taken since the Reformation . . .
“Oh, Fortuna, blind heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,” Ignatius
belched. “Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.”
“What you mumbling about in there, boy?” his mother asked through the closed
“I am praying,” Ignatius answered angrily . . .
“I think it’s wonderful you praying, babe. I been wondering what you do locked up
in there all the time.”
“Please go away!” Ignatius screamed. “You’re shattering my religious ecstasy.”
Ignatius touched the small erection that was pointing downward into the sheet, held it, and
lay still trying to decide what to do. In this position, with the red flannel nightshirt around
his chest and his massive stomach sagging into the mattress, he thought somewhat sadly
that after eighteen years with his hobby it had become merely a mechanical physical act
stripped of the flights of fancy and invention that he had once been able to bring to it. At
one time he had almost developed it into an art form, practicing the hobby with the skill and
fervor of an artist and a philosopher, a scholar and a gentleman. There were still hidden in
his room several accessories which he had once used, a rubber glove, a piece of fabric from
a silk umbrella, a jar of Noxema. Putting them away again after it was all over had
eventually grown too depressing.
Ignatius manipulated and concentrated. At last a vision appeared, the familiar figure
of the large and devoted collie that had been his pet when he was in high school. “Woof!”
Ignatius almost heard Rex say. “Woof! Woof! Arf!” Rex looked so lifelike. One ear
drooped. He panted. The apparition jumped over a fence and chased a stick that somehow
landed in the middle of Ignatius’ quilt. As the tan and white fur grew closer, Ignatius’ eyes
dilated, crossed and closed, and he lay wanly back among his four pillows, hoping that he
had some Kleenex in his room.
© Thelma D. Toole