Years ago, I read John Kennedy Toole’s book, despite hesitation. The back story of the book’s publication, that he killed himself and that his mother pushed to get it published, put a pall over that caused me reluctance. Besides that, books orphically called humourous, hilarious, and the like have too often disappointed me.
Somehow, tho, I overcame my prejudice, and found the book much better than expected. I just reread it, for some reason for only the second time.
Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist, stands as one of the best-conceived comic characters in books, and maybe anywhere else. He’s a wound up bundle of imposing dictates. He’s gargantuan gross, overbearing, and barely ready for this real world here. He’s so imperious in his weaknesses, astounding in his critical decrees. He lives with his abetting mother in crank symbiosis.
The book goes astray narratively when Reilly starts having sitcom adventures. I mean, predestined and perfunctory occasions of extraordinary setting. His best adventures are with the ordinary. His mother and a helpful police officer are talking while in the next room we hear Ignatius exploding about the fall of civilization as he watches American Bandstand. He greedily watches a movie in a theatre so he can criticize everything. He’s in his own little world, but with plenty of peepholes into our opulent decay.
I read about Toole in Wikipedia and, yeah, I know, but it did have citations. Anyway,Toole as presented certainly lived in Reilly. The servile yet oppressive mother comes thru even in Walker Percy’s intro in which he describes how the manuscript came to him. Toole was said to have a sardonic wit like Reilly. Not to push far with that stuff. You see the necessity of the book for Toole.
The book is flawed. A couple of editors weren’t content with what they had and maybe Toole tried to please them. Or he didn’t know how to handle the narrative. The book definitively goes off the tracks whenever Reilly is offstage. Tho Toole writes with a keen sense of dialect, like unto Huckleberry Finn, he’s not energized by his secondary characters.
Reilly gets a job at Levy Pants, where he becomes painstakingly and ridiculously professional. He’s supposed to file correspondence but he throws that away and spends hours making signs and having big ideas. Pushed by his radical ex-girlfriend (of sorts), he incites the blacks in the factory to riot against the man, which leaves Reilly fired. Next stop, hot dog vendor.
Here he attempts to incite the gay community to join his revolution. They just want to party. These episodes have a certain sardonic vigour but carry the panache of a Jerry Lewis movie. And Reilly, amazingly, gets rather lost in all the bustle. The ending is pretty much deus ex machina times about 20.
Toole wrote one other novel, at age 16, posthumously published, and that, so far as I know, is his oeuvre. Maybe he wasted his energy, like Reilly, I don’t know. The preposterous yet lifelike Reilly character carries the book. Writers treat narrative like melody, an invention while forgetting the naturalness of harmony. Life, not lifelike, and that means letting the character find his/her way, rather than force it to comply.