”It’s the kind of book that reaches out and takes you by the lapels,” says LSU Press director L.E. Phillabaum of A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which LSU has just republished in a 20th-anniversary edition. ”It compels you to keep reading.”
And roaring. Most of the belly laughs come courtesy of its main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, a morbidly obese misanthrope who lives with his cretinous mother in a New Orleans hovel and rails against the evils of modernity (”Canned food is a perversion…. I suspect that it is ultimately very damaging to the soul”). Forced to find a job, he becomes the world’s worst weenie vendor, scaring away customers with a crayon-scrawled sign promising ”Twelve Inches (12) of Paradise.”
But behind this gut-busting narrative lies a fascinatingly tragic back story. Toole (a dead ringer for Late Night sidekick Andy Richter) actually wrote Confederacy nearly 40 years ago, while serving as an Army corporal in Puerto Rico. In 1969, a few years after the manuscript was rejected by Simon & Schuster, the aspiring author, 31, asphyxiated himself with auto exhaust. His eccentric mother, Thelma, circulated the tome unsuccessfully among numerous publishers over the next decade, finally hobbling into the office of novelist Walker Percy (The Moviegoer), who championed it to Phillabaum, then LSU acquiring editor. It has since sold 1.5 million copies worldwide and been translated into 20 languages.
The human-interest angle captured the media’s fancy (MOM’S DRIVE ENDS AS DEAD SON WINS THE PULITZER PRIZE, blared that noted literary journal the New York Post). ”Whether the book would have been as broadly noticed without the story is impossible to say,” says Phillabaum. ”But I am put in mind of Gore Vidal’s comment when he heard Truman Capote had died: ‘Good career move.”’
Alas, no movie has materialized, despite the rights having been sold several times and every overweight actor from John Belushi to John Candy to John Goodman having been mentioned for the larger-than-life part of Ignatius. Missing this enormous comic opportunity proves Hollywood is the true confederacy of dunces.