Constructive Writing: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. … Ignatius noticed… anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul. (p.1)

Meet Ignatius J. Reilly, the central character and drive of this book. Every life here is directly or indirectly affected by his actions. He is as eloquent as he is self-centered.

You two might have settled down and had a nice baby or something.”

Do I believe that such obscenity and filth is coming from the lips of my own mother?” Ignatius bellowed. “Now run along and fix me some dinner.” (p.56)

He believes, with total self-authority, that he’s mind is too valuable for work. He is an infallible genius with important matters to focus on.

In the five years that he had dedicated to this work, he had produced an average of only six paragraphs monthly. He could not even remember what he had written in some of the tablets, and he realized that several were filled principally with doodling. However, Ignatius thought calmly, Rome was not built in a day. (p.30)

This book is not solely about Ignatius J. Reilly. There are more characters, often wonderfully described and ludicrous in action, whose lives overlay. This extra depth probably explains the Pulitzer Prize it won.

It is not a perfect story. Some sections are overdone and some characters and events are left unresolved. The ridiculousness of some events are only helped by the ridiculousness in writing tone (the world created), and therefore are saved from feeling overly coincidental.

The drawing together of many, not all, story threads is what make the book feel complete. When one considers the writer’s suicide before publishing (or any positive recognition), it could be argued that editing and rewriting might have made for a better piece.

Still, this is a book to recommend for those interested in how to create a comic, overt, real world. To show advantages of raising story elements early (like in film), as they help the end feel like a natural conclusion. And it is a good book for a laugh.


Changing Status: Ignatius is slothful. His mother bound to home. Jones is a vagrant. Macruco is a waste. Miss Trixie wants to retire. Lana has a business concern. Everyone has their problems in their position. Everyone changes, many in a foul swoop.

The Worst: For the central character of Ignatius there is nothing worse than work. Still, he will have to take a job, even if it is beneath his intellect.

High Stakes: Pride is the central theme. Ignatius has his pride education, shown through his verbosity. Lana has her bar. Jones wants worth as a human. Macruco seeks it a police officer. All characters have something they hold precious, and can lose or gain it in their struggles with and against one another.

Believable Characters: “I scare of the po-lice, Watson. Ooo-wee.” – Jones. Each character has a style, a personality, a whole manner in which they move, talk and chose to interact.

Time Pressure: There is a car accident and money must be paid back swiftly. For Ignatius the acquiring of a job is horrid, and that is a problem to swiftly solve in itself. His mother’s increasing subordination another dilemma to solve before it gets out of hand.

Educate: Novels that focus on character do not generally educate the reader. There are references to historical texts and some understanding of New Orleans, but the purpose here is laughing at the characters and perhaps leaning about yourself by what you see in them.