My younger sister Clare raved about and lent me her copy of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the summer of 2010. Reading it was one of several threads that came together that year, which together spawned Leo Moran and The Ghost of Helen Addison.
A Confederacy of Dunces is a true masterpiece of black comedy, a strange and unique novel set in New Orleans and starring the grotesque Ignatius B Reilly. There must be something about Louisiana that got into my blood when I visited there in 1997, because as I write this it occurs to me that perhaps the greatest two influences on the Leo Moran series are A Confederacy of Dunces and the beloved Dave Robicheaux crime fiction books by James Lee Burke, discussed in a previous blog. Dunces is one of those novels in which not a great deal actually happens, but the lack of plot simply does not matter to the reader, who is entirely caught up in the genius of the prose, and the funniness of the farcical events and colourful characters. I suppose I could compare it with my favourite film Withnail and I (also, I think, an influence on Leo Moran). If you were to explain to the uninitiated what happens within Withnail, it would take approximately sixteen seconds (SPOLIER ALERT: Two out-of-work actors seek oblivion in booze and drugs, then go to countryside for the weekend. They drink more, mistake a poacher for a psychopath, and one is nearly molested by the other one’s lascivious uncle. They come home, one gets a stage role, they part company).
On the subject of movies, Dunces has persistently failed to be translated onto the big screen, to the extent that the endeavour seems cursed. John Belushi was earmarked to play Reilly, but sadly died. Then option after option meant the script became strangled by ever-winding bonds of legal complexity. To the book’s aficionados the project is doomed anyway; such was Toole’s picturesque genius that no actor ever born could do his antihero Reilly justice. Inasmuch as books almost always outclass their movie versions, then a Confederacy of Dunces film would inevitably prove a faint Photostat of its mighty provenance.
The book's lack of coherent plot was the tragic downfall of its author. Robert Gottlieb, a senior guy at Simon & Schuster, championed the work during the mid-sixties, but Toole, fiercely loyal to his manuscript, refused to compromise on the demand that he add more storyline. As a result he was not signed up and the perfectionist Toole went into stasis; apparently only the world’s biggest publishing outfit would have passed muster for his creation. It would be churlish to offer a trite explanation as to why Toole took his own life in 1969; perhaps there were myriad reasons. But undoubtedly the failure of Dunces to get into print played a crucial part.
The next chapter is the stuff of bittersweet literary legend: how Toole’s indomitable mother Thelma’s sheer force of personality got the (unadulterated) manuscript into print by 1980; a year later her son had scooped a posthumous Pulitzer.
Anyway, while I feel slightly squeamish speaking about myself in the company of such greatness, I must confess that Toole’s ghastly, self-deluded, ultra-supercilious outsider Reilly must have had an influence on my guy Moran. I reckon I already had Leo – irascible, Catholic (like Ignatius) and pompous – formed, but Toole’s masterpiece probably drew him forth from the ether and sharpened his acidity. In the same way that James Lee Burke’s novels gave me the confidence to reach for a particular style of crime writing, so did Toole’s great work encourage me not to compromise on Moran’s larger-than-lifeness.
So, to my sister Clare I say ‘thank you’ for lending me the book back then, and ‘sorry’ for returning it rebound with duct tape! I’m usually very careful with other folk’s property, but at least it demonstrated that it had been well-thumbed!