When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him. Jonathan Swift
Swift’s quotation describes Ignatius J. Reilly better than you could possible imagine. The entire world is filled with idiots interfering, cheating, manipulated the misunderstood genius, or so it seems in Ignatius’s mind. Ignatius is over-educated, under-motivated, overweight, and socially deformed in his quest to, well, to do nothing. His mother is over-bearing yet sympathetic, but she is running out of patience with her TV-watching son. The story begins with a small car accident in New Orleans, forcing Ignatius to seek employment to pay help pay for the damages. The results are pure comedy.
Ignatius hops from a clerk in a failing clothing company to a hot dog vendor to a political organizer in an effort to bring his intelligence to a much lower element of society. Lucky them. The story is filled with flawed characters: a hapless police office, a detached business owner and his condescendingly liberal wife, a busybody neighbor, a stripper with a heart of gold, a flamboyant party organizer, a cruel strip bar owner, an elderly clerk with dementia, and female college activist with a penchant for bad screenplays and petty antics. And, of course, is Jones, a Black janitor for the less-than-reputable Night of Joy strip club. Jones is the least educated yet the sharpest character in the bunch.
But the real story is Ignatius himself. His “Oh my God!” gasps, complaints about his heart valve, and his sophisticated turnings of a phrase make this a funny, funny book. As readers we both love and despise Ignatius. Either way, we watch him with car wreck-like wonder.
The story behind the book is interesting: the book was published posthumously after his mother nagged Walker Percy to read it. Toole committed suicide in 1969, and the novel was published in 1980. It won the Pulizer Prize the following year.
I’ve wanted to read this book for years now. Mark read it this year, and his review nudged me to start it. I alternated reading the book with listening to the audio book. I’m glad I listened to it, because this is the best production of any audio book I’ve ever heard. The performance of Ignatius and Jones is unbelievable.