If you’ve heard of this book, but not read it, you’re probably aware of the troubled circumstance of its publication. Several years after having failed to be published, Toole committed suicide. The story of the book would have ended there, except Toole’s mother found the typescript and carted it around to people in the literary community. After much persistence and not taking no for an answer, she managed to get Walker Percy to read the manuscript, and the rest is posthumous Pulitzer Prize winning history.
It would be easy to dismiss the editors involved in rejecting this manuscript as grade-A lunkheads, or as the lead character (Ignatius J. Reilly) likes to verbally skewer his victims “Mongoloids.” However, one can see how said lunkheads would find this much-beloved novel risky. It’s a character-driven novel in which the lead character is obnoxious and unlovable in the extreme. Reilly is a pretentious and pedantic professorial type–verbally speaking– wrapped into the obese body of a man-child who is emotionally an ill-mannered five-year old with a bombastic vocabulary. Reilly has no impulse control, takes no responsibility, and is prone to tantrums, sympathy-seeking dramatic displays, and wanton lies. He’s the worst because he thinks he’s better than everyone despite the fact that in all ways except his acerbic tongue, he’s worse than everyone.
That said, the book—like its unsympathetic lead character—is hilarious through and through. What it lacks in a taught story arc and a theme / moral argument (the latter being why the editor at Simon and Schuster rejected the book after showing initial interest in it) it more than makes up in hilarity.
I should point out that when I say that this isn’t a plot-driven book, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an interesting wrap-up at the end—which I will not discuss to avoid spoiling it. The plot revolves around events in the life of a lazy man-child forced to go to work. It’s not a journey of change, discovery, or adventure. While, in most cases, a character-driven story with an unmalleable lead would be a recipe for a book that flops, here it keeps one reading to the last page because it’s Ignatius’s failure to become a better man that ensures the book is funny to the end. Reilly is constantly making decisions that are both overly contemplated and yet ill-considered.
The book follows Ignatius Reilly through an event that results in a tremendous loss of money for Ignatius’s mother. This forces her to finally put her foot down and insist the man—who she still thinks of as her little boy—get a job. It should be noted that Ignatius’s mother’s eventual coming around to the monster her son has become is a major driving force in the story—though we can see a distinct lack of taking of responsibility that echoes that of Ignatius, himself. Ignatius gets a fine—if lowly, clerical–job at the slowly-dying Levy Pants Company, but gets fired after he encourages a worker protest that goes awry. He then gets a job as a hot-dog cart vendor—a job considered the lowest of the low by both his mother and New Orleans’ society-at-large. The latter is the job he has at the end when a final chain of events unfolds (not without tension and drama, I might add.)
On the theme issue, the Simon & Schuster editor was correct that the book isn’t really about anything except how to muddle through life as a lazy, cranky, emotionally-stunted, and overly-verbose doofus. (But he was oh-so wrong about that being a lethal deficit—according to the Pulitzer Prize committee as well as innumerable readers.)
I’d recommend this for any reader with a sense of humor. You won’t like Ignatius J. Reilly, but you’ll find his antics hilarious, and you’ll want to know what happens to him in the end even if he is irredeemable.