The book, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, may have saved my life.
Times are tough for me right now. Truthfully, I’ve been in-between-jobs, aka “unemployed,” for nearly 10 weeks now. I’m in the throws of the uneventful unemployment appeals process, but Oregon has openly told me they have “no idea” when they’ll be able to hear my case. “If you don’t hear from us in six weeks, give us a call.” That breeds confidence in the system, doesn’t it?
Not having a job since September 13, I would be lying if I said this lack of forward momentum and structure has not taken an emotional toll on me. A sad byproduct of being truly poor is being forced to withdraw from the public sphere. No more “happy hours.” No more weekend activities. Sometimes even fast food is out of the question (except Jack in the Box tacos, I’ll always find the change for Jack in the Box tacos). Some days I’m invigorated to make progress on one of my 1000 projects, so I fly out of bed before sunrise, eager to write and create. And other days, often the rainy ones, I simply cannot find the motivation to pull myself out of bed in my tiny, converted attic space. Instead, I write in my notebooks/screenplays, watch movies, and eat ramen. A distilled existence for sure.
Recently, to add insult to injury, while visiting my ex-girlfriend at my previous apartment, my car got (almost) towed. Luckily for me, I chased the tow truck through the apartment complex and managed to open the door and jump into the driver’s seat of my car before they could drive off with it (Charlie Sheen’s character in Navy Seals would have been proud of my effort). Despite my Bolt-like sprinting in wool socks, the tow truck guys weren’t impressed or nearly as forgiving, so they “had no choice” but to charge me the drop fee of $197. This cleaned out my bank account… completely. We’re talking $0.23.
In these times, the lowest moments, we can turn to our friends and family for support and guidance. My family has been a constant support system for me for the last 31 years, I couldn’t stand to shoulder them with my latest economic mishap, so instead I called my best friend and melted into a puddle in my car in the parking lot of my local Fred Meyer. I cried about my lack of money and the lack of opportunities. I opined about my omni-potential and what I could accomplish if only given the chance. And lastly, this was truthfully the hardest part for me to verbalize to my best friend and even harder to write about here, I told him that I felt like a failure in comparison to the watermarks of my friends, seeing success in their own respective lives. I was truly at the bottom.
“I want you to read this book,” he said over the phone.
Two days later, I received an overnight package from my best friend. Inside was a card from him and his girlfriend, with a handful of gift cards tucked in. “We want to help!” he wrote in his chicken scratch cursive. I couldn’t help but break down in gratitude. Tucked in with the card was the novel A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.
If he had the audacity to send me this book via overnight mail with claims it would change my life, the least I could do is sit down and give it a little read it. The old college try. Since I wasn’t exactly doing anything else that day, I made myself some hot chocolate and cozied up on the couch with my new book. Sounds perfect, right? Considered by some to be a masterwork of “American comedy literature” and picaresque literature, I was excited to dig in. I needed a good laugh.
Set in New Orleans in the late 1960s, the protagonist of the story is Ignatius J. Reilly, an overeducated 30-year-old living at home with his mother. Described as a”slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Ignatius spends a majority of his time in his bedroom, writing verbose diatribes in his Big Chief notepads and scathing letters to his pen pal, Myrna. His family comes under financial stress (due in part to Ignatius), so Ignatius’ mother sends him out into the world to get a job. His adventures in joining the workforce are entertaining and the ripples reach the farthest corners of the novel. The cast of characters are familiar, funny, and whimsical renditions of New Orleans during that era. At times, it was impossible to deny the obvious echoes between the novel’s enigmatic main character and my own current predicament. I won’t give anything else away, but this is truly a book worth reading for anybody concerned they may be circling around an existential crisis.
Toole spent six years trying to get Dunces published, but ultimately, his efforts were fruitless. Despite being a beloved English professor, served in the military in Puerto Rico, and his continued pursuit of higher education, Toole became unhinged and depressed at age 30. He lost his teaching position and some would say, his grasp on reality. At age 31, he withdrew $1500 and embarked on a road trip, touring the country. Nobody’s exactly sure where he went, but he ultimately ended up in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he ran a garden hose from his exhaust pipe into his driver’s side window. When officers found his body, they said he showed “no signs of distress.”
Toole’s mother, Thelma Toole, believed her son’s writing was remarkable, and felt it was her duty to share it with the world. She continued his mission of getting the novel published, going so far as to reach out to Walker Percy, author and teacher at Loyola University. With Percy’s help, the book was eventually published in 1980, and in 1981, A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Before you go calling my parents, I am nowhere near going for “one last road trip” hurrah before meeting my own garden hose fate, but I was feeling extremely downtrodden about my potential and my place in the gears of the world. Reading A Confederacy of Dunces brought some humor back into my life and inspired me to write, in a new, honest, way. Perhaps more than ever, I’m eager to re-find and craft my own, unique writing voice again.
“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.” – Ignatius J. Reilly