A Confederacy of Dunces

First of all, the author’s name intrigues me, partially because John Kennedy was my favorite uncle and partially because ‘Toole’ seems incomplete without the ‘O’.

A second curiosity about this book is that it is older, written in the 60’s, but not published until the 80’s.  The Author, J.K. Toole, in despair over his inability to get it published, committed suicide.  His mother later badgered and hectored a college professor/author, Walker Percy, to get it published, and he eventually did.  All I have read lauds it as a work of comic genius.  To my mind it is good, in spots very good, but not great and not genius.

Three overall components in the book, the 60’s, the south, and New Orleans combine into a fertile field for some seriously quirky characters.  Prince of the quirky is the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, a bloated, arrogant, self- important, lazy, mendacious man of thirty living with his mother and resisting conformity for all he is worth.  To start the story, his mother has a few too many, and has a car accident which will cost her about a thousand dollars in property damages.  She prevails on Ignatius, much against his will, to get a job and help pay for it.  His job searches and two employments (file clerk at a pants factory and hot dog vendor) provide all the fixins’ that Toole requires for a gumbo of meanderings and misadventures by New Orleans flora and fauna.  There is a cop that can’t seem to make an arrest, an exotic dancer billing herself as “Scarlett  O’Whora”, a black man forced to work for less than minimum wage to escape arrest for vagrancy, a senile office worker who is not permitted to retire, a gay man named Dorian Green, the long suffering mother, the mother’s friends and suitor, the complaining next door neighbor, the liberal activist Jewish perennial college student who eventually saves Ignatius from a mental hospital, the owner of the pants factory and his nagging wife, the owner of the hot dog cart, a boy involved in a ring that sells pornography, et al.  Much of this, as I think of it now, is reminiscent of some of the zanier stories to come out of the 60’s, in particular “Candy” and “What’s New Pussycat”, both of which seemed to just bounce odd characters off each other.

And that is why, in one review that I read, that the novel was not published in the author’s lifetime.  Clever, creative and comic that it was, it did not seem to have any direction.  It was like an arcade game where the little ball bounces off bumpers and rails and flippers to score points, but it had no overall theme.  It was a wonderful series of well-drawn characters placed in ludicrous situations, but a sequence of madcap events does not make a book.  Even the Marx brother’s stories had a veneer of a plot.

I liked the book a lot.  It kept me reading, actually listening, until the very end after which I missed it like an old friend.  But it could have used some editing.  I wish Mr. Toole had not succumbed to despair.  Had he stayed with it a while, it could have been an even better book, and become the black humor classic it has been touted as.

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Founders Tavern

In a smoky corner of an afterlife tavern reserved for The Founders, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Livingston sit and dissect the state of current U.S. affairs over a tankard of hard cider.  Around them, and imbedded in every aspect of their sanctuary, the world continues its revolutions.  With a slight shift in perception, easily accomplished for those dead for so long, they can easily see, hear and understand the daily triumphs and trudgings of those still on the mortal plane. They are enthralled by this election, and as appalled and terrified as the rest of the ‘informed electorate’.  They have deep discussions about separation of powers, freedom of the press, voter fraud, immigrants, the right to bear arms, demagoguery, and, most commonly, hair color. There are the usual references to pumpkins and summer squash, and the occasional comment that ‘orange isn’t the new anything’.

As in all other elections, halls are rented, crowds gather, flags are draped, speeches are made that are well-crafted, deeply emotional, and full of lies.  There is a woman running for president this time, a novelty, and thought to be a historic moment.  That potential moment  is eclipsed by the antics and bombast of a charlatan posing as a statesman.  Like the people on the plane of existence swirling around them, the founders cringe and recoil and argue.

“We are the five,” Livingston reminisces, “that were tasked with explaining to the nation, and the world, why we were breaking away from England. We are the committee chosen to write the declaration.”  Jefferson, who did most of the writing, just stares down at his drink.  He has been in the tavern longer than the others, and is beginning to sway a little.

“We gave the future generations a plan,” Sherman mutters, “a tower of rationality in an irrational age and little by little they have whittled it into a quaint treasury of clichés and empty promises.  This election completes the journey from powerhouse to madhouse.”

“Self evident,” Jefferson said into his mug, ‘that all men are created equal,  I wrote that.”

“Yes,” Livingston said to him, “and just a month before that, George wrote that “all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights,”

“Nonsense,” Jefferson muttered.  “Dilberries.  He never did.”

“I can find you a copy, sir.  It’s well known among us that his Virginia Declaration of Rights is chock-a-block with phrases that you have become famous, even revered, for.”

Jefferson looks up with a twisted grin.  “Leibniz and Newton.  Keep in mind Leibniz and Newton.”

They all look at each other in confusion until Franklin pushes his glasses up on his nose and says, “Our ginger compatriot is making reference to calculus.  Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton each claim to have discovered, or invented, calculus at roughly the same time. There was a big fight between them, what they now call a’ kerfuffle’.  I will grant you that these moderns are shallow and grasping, but I like that word ‘kerfuffle’.  Rolls right off the tongue, means exactly what it sounds like.”

Adams, scowling as usual, adds, “So, Sir Isaac became famous worldwide, and rich too, and herr Leibniz remains a footnote.  Not unlike our Thomas here and the undiscovered squire Mason.”

“Undiscovered,” slurred Jefferson, “and undeserving.  The man is a hack, or was a hack.  Probably will be a hack in the future too.”  

At that moment, if we can speak of something as tangible as ‘moments’ in an afterlife tavern shifting between planes of existence, George Mason strolls into the tavern.

“An injured friend…,” says John Adams.

“Yes, yes,” says Jefferson,  ‘…is the bitterest of foes’, I know.  I said that too.”

“Are you sure that was you?” Franklin asks.  “Sounds a bit more like Aaron Burr.  That man was an authority on enemies.”  Sherman and Livingston laugh.

Mason walks past the table, stops for a second to glare wordlessly at Jefferson, and joins Patrick Henry at a table near the window.  Jefferson, red-faced now, yells across the room, ‘Leibniz and Newton, George, my good man.  Leibniz and Newton.”  

“Ignore him,” Patrick Henry says, with his finger in the air calling for a drink.  

Franklin looks around at the gloomy faces at his table, particularly that of Jefferson.  “Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he says.  “There should be no despair here.  Our creation has faced greater crises than this, and thrived.  Do I need to remind you of the Civil War?  Of two world wars?  Of the impeachment of two presidents and the resignation of another?  Of the Great Depression and more recently of the Great Recession?”

“Or,” Jefferson slurs, “does he need to remind you of Sarah Palin?”

The table laughs. Most of the tavern laughs.  It was November 8th on our mortal plane, and they all turned to focus their perception on the incoming results.  “Results are in from Florida and .. “

Creation by Gore Vidal

I recently  finished reading the Gore Vidal novel, Creation.  Enjoyed it very much.  It tells the story of a fifth century BCE Persian nobleman, Cyrus Spitama, and his adventures and travels.  Cyrus is the grandson of the prophet Zoroaster, who was central to the religion of, what else, Zoroastrianism.  This ancient religion worshipped one deity, whom Cyrus Spitama refers to as ‘The Wise Lord’, and as a monotheism, was somewhat unusual in that time period.  Zoroaster was in personal contact with The Wise Lord, not unlike Abraham and Moses and Noah and Mohammed and, most recently Joseph Smith.  Cyrus heard only the one sentence from The Wise Lord, but that seemed to be enough.

The novel opens with Cyrus Spitama (like he was named after a camel), half Greek, old and blind, reluctantly serving as Persia’s ambassador to Athens.  This is after the Persian wars, after Marathon and Plataea and Thermopylae and the two burnings of Athens, but certainly there is still loathing and distrust  between the two cultures.  Spitama makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the Greeks.

He, Cyrus, talks about his youth as an outsider in the Persian court of Darius, and his boyhood friendship with the crown prince, Xerxes.  The recent movie, The 300, portrays Xerxes as eccentric almost to the point of seeming extraterrestrial.  Vidal’s Xerxes is just a garden variety arrogant ruler of an enormous empire who is addicted to power and yet trapped by it.  He is  eventually assassinated by those closest to him.  Sounds familiar. (Julius Caesar ended up that way, and Nero and Caligula and Charles I and King Louis XVI and Robespierre, and those are just the westerners.  Rulers of India, China, Japan and Russia also succumbed to the same fate.  Hard to think of an example here in America, other than Crazy Horse.  We here in North America prefer that our leaders be murdered by strangers.)

But Cyrus, uncomfortable as he was in the Persian hierarchy, was fortunate enough to become a confidant of The Great King Cyrus and sent on trade missions to distant and exotic lands, India and then China.

In India, a heavily populated and profoundly religious, if to Western eyes hypocritical, area called ‘the Gangetic Plain’, Cyrus treats with several of the local kings.  They are all either anxiously awaiting their final reincarnation, or actively plotting mayhem in order  to become universal ruler.  Cyrus is amazed at the variety of religious sects, always comparing what he sees to his deep Zoroastrian beliefs.  Fervent and sincere conversations with India’s ranking savant, the Buddha, left him only baffled.  In time, he marries the daughter of one of these monarchs, the most deceitful and bloodthirsty of them all, but soon makes an acceptable trade deal and returns to Persia.  Not a young man anymore, he manages to avoid serious entanglement with court machinations, and also with the capricious Greeks and is eventually sent to China.  

After years of travel, he arrives in China, is immediately captured and enslaved by a series of squabbling contenders for the title of Son of Heaven.  As in India, any discussion of either religion or politics is circular, specious and ultimately baffling.  But, he does manage to discourse with Li Po, and even make friends with Confucius.  

Eventually, and not easily, he escapes from China and makes his way back to Persia to find that his boyhood friend Xerxes is Great King, but is largely dissolute and disinterested in governing his empire.  He is murdered by his palace guard, and soon his son, Artaxerxes, sends Cyrus Spitama to Greece on a mission, mostly secret, to establish a treaty with Athens that will keep both the Persian empire and the seminal Greek city-state from another conflict. This is Cyrus’ final mission.  The camel has spit for the last time.  

I have read enough history to follow Cyrus’ ancient escapades without  being totally confused.  I even know what BCE stands for.  This book is a masterful blend of arcane facts and vivid details that swirl and sparkle and build until they resemble something very much like a novel.  But, the swirling and the sparkle don’t seem to adhere to anything concrete, like a central theme.  It’s like the salt on a pretzel, but I never found the pretzel.

The title, Creation,  is a clue, or perhaps a red herring, or, most likely, a mirage; something that looked real but just never did pan out  In recreating sages of the age, Zoroaster, Aristotle, Pericles, Li Po, Confucius, Buddha, Vidal frequently has Cyrus ruminate on the central mystery of all religious investigation; i.e., our origins.  What was the beginning, and what was before the beginning?  All these luminaries have answers, or sometimes non-answers, but none satisfy.  Twenty-five centuries later, there are still no satisfying answers.  

Perhaps the best we can hope for, as Cyrus Spitama did, is to live in interesting times.