The Curse of A Confederacy of Dunces
When I was in college and working as a clerk/resolution writer for the Texas Senate, my friend, Mary Hobart, recommended a book to me. Mary Hobart had excellent, if sometimes eccentric, tastes in film and literature, and she insisted that I must read A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, at my earliest convenience. (And yes, that was the way she talked—she was a very proper Southern lady.) She spoke of the detailed depiction of her beloved New Orleans in the book—in her opinion, nobody had ever captured the city in print as vividly as Toole had. She not only summarized the novel for me, but she also described the circuitous route that the book had taken to publication following the author’s death by suicide eleven years earlier.
John Kennedy Toole had been a brilliant English language scholar and instructor, the only child of an unassuming father and an overbearing mother. A Confederacy of Dunces was his second novel; it, like his first book, The Neon Bible, was rejected by every publishing company to which he had submitted it. Increasingly despondent over the continued rejection of his work, the once social and entertaining Toole became paranoid and depressed, finally taking a long road trip from his home in Louisiana to California, then to Mississippi, where he attempted to visit the home of his favorite author, Flannery O’Connor. Failing this, he drove to a spot near Biloxi and ran a garden hose from the exhaust pipe of his car into the interior.
Two years after his death, Toole’s mother found a carbon copy of the manuscript for A Confederacy of Dunces among his belongings and began shopping it around to various editors. She arrived one day at the office of Walker Percy, an author and professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, and insisted that he read it. Percy was immediately taken with the quality of the work and began trying to get the work published. Finally, Louisiana State University Press published the book in 1980, eleven years after Toole’s death. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, and the book became an international bestseller.
And so, at my earliest convenience, I picked up a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces and began to read. Mary Hobart was right—I was instantly transported to New Orleans and surrounded by some of the most interesting characters I’d ever encountered in literature, most notably Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist. Possibly the most unattractive protagonist ever, I could practically smell him every time I opened the book—and yet I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to him next. The plot, such as it is, is really a series of character studies of the people in Ignatius’ life, and his reactions to them. The characters, the dialects, the dialogue were all so vivid and evocative—and the story was hilarious. As I read, I could see the book unfolding in my head like a movie and I immediately wondered whether a film version was in the works.
Harold Ramis was originally charged with writing a screenplay for Confederacy in 1982, and it was easy to imagine John Belushi in the role of Ignatius; he had, in fact, been the first actor considered for the role when Hollywood first took notice of the story. Belushi’s untimely death in 1982 sank the Ramis project and left many wondering who else could play this unique role. John Waters was interested in developing the property for his favorite actor, Divine, but Divine passed away before any definite plans could be made. Over time, John Candy and Chris Farley were both floated as possibilities, but again, each actor’s early death shelved any hope of a production taking shape any time soon. Some in the industry joked of a curse on the project and anyone who attempted to bring the book to the screen, but as time went on, the jokes turned to wonder that this book had not been made into a film yet.
Most recently, Steven Soderbergh had a Confederacy production in the works for release in 2005. The film would star Will Ferrell as Ignatius, and a staged reading of the screenplay received outstanding reviews at the 8th Nantucket Film Festival. The project stalled shortly thereafter and various reasons have been given for the delay, including executive reorganizations at Paramount Pictures, the studio involved in the production; the murder of the head of the Louisiana State Film Commission; and Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Ferrell has been quoted as saying that funding has been a major problem in getting the project off the ground. At this point, it looks like a Confederacy film starring Ferrell is unlikely.
So what is it about this book that keeps it off the screen? Is it a lack of interest in the industry? A change in viewer trends? An actual fear that the project is, in fact, cursed? Personally, I’d love to see Jack Black as Ignatius, but I’m not holding my breath. Until A Confederacy of Dunces makes it to the big screen, I’m content to reread the book and wait for the movie event of the century. Who knows—maybe it will even happen in my lifetime.