A Confederacy of Dunces

December 22, 2008

posted by Caroline Picard – John Kennedy Toole came to mind, as I’d heard a wild fable (likely true) that his manuscript was submitted to the editor post-humously on a stack of legal pads with an all-but illegible scrawl. As a fan of the book, I’d be curious to see the inner workings of what took place between the written draft and the published version. Editing books is such a touchy subject, and all kinds of editors have different styles, those that take a more interior approach (by which, I mean that they try and understand what the piece is about on its own, using a criteria for editing that is generated from the interior purpose of the book), or editors who edit towards what they think is best – an aesthetic that is predetermined in their mind. While I prefer the latter style, I’ve been thinking about it of late, for instance: perhaps the great writers we know (albeit great might be a point of contention), are really the result of an essential conversation between editor and writer – even if that conversation took place after the author has died.

To that end, I’ve included part of a book review, and something about the supposed movie that people stopped talking about…


Confederacy of Dunces

The comedy of A Confederacy of Dunces is writ large in and between its many lines: a grand farce of overeducated white trash, corrupt law enforcement, exotic dancing and the nouveau riche in steamy New Orleans. The Pulitzer committee thought highly enough of Toole’s comic prowess to give his only novel the Prize posthumously. Therein lies the tragedy of this huge and hugely funny book: John Kennedy Toole didn’t live to see this now-classic novel published. He committed suicide in 1969 at the age of thirty-two. It was his mother who was responsible for bringing his book to public light, pestering the hell out of Walker Percy, who was teaching at Loyola in 1976, to read it until finally that distinguished author relented. In his foreword to A Confederacy of Dunces, Percy laments the body of work lost to the world of literature with the author’s death, but rejoices “that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy is at least made available to a world of readers.”

At the center of A Confederacy of Dunces is that contemptuous hypochondriac, that deadbeat ideologue, that gluttonous moocher Ignatius Reilly. A mountainous college graduate living off his mother’s welfare check in her home on one of New Orleans seedy back streets. He spends most of his time waxing melodramatically philosophic, hiding out in the squalor of his bedroom, filling Big Chief writing tablets with his unique brand of Luddite/medievalist/anti-Enlightenment thought and penning incendiary letters to his sex-crazed ex-college-girlfriend Myrna Minkoff. His beleaguered mother by turns dotes and turns on him in their schizophrenic dance between adult child and aging parent.

You can continue reading this review by following this link, to curledup.com. Copyrighted by Sharon Schulz-Elsing.

A Conspiracy of DuncesWill John Kennedy Toole’s comic masterpiece ever reach the big screen?

A Confederacy of Dunces.

In January of 1980, Scott Kramer, a young executive at 20th Century Fox, received the galleys of an oddly titled novel. The publisher, the Louisiana State University Press, had no presence whatsoever in Hollywood, but Kramer had contacted them a year earlier, using studio letterhead to obtain an arcane guide to the flora of Louisiana, which he gave to his mother, an amateur botanist, for her birthday. In the process, he unwittingly became the press’s only contact in the movie business. When the book arrived, Kramer had no desire to read it, but making some effort, he rationalized, would give him a clear conscience when he passed on the project. As it turned out, the manuscript changed his life. Kramer became one of the first of many readers to be seduced by the comic charms of A Confederacy of Dunces. The producer has spent 26 years trying to make the book into a movie, and his odyssey underlines a perennial Hollywood question: Can you adapt a satire without losing your shirt and your mind?

According to some sources, a film version of Dunces is slated for release in 2007, with a meticulously faithful script by Kramer and Steven Soderbergh. To direct, Kramer has attached David Gordon Green, who, though relatively unknown, has a Southern Gothic style that matches the tone of the book. The all-star cast includes Lily Tomlin, Drew Barrymore, Mos Def, Olympia Dukakis, and Will Ferrell in a fat suit, as the philosophical and portly Ignatius J. Reilly. There’s just one problem: Not a scene has been captured on film yet.

Ostensibly, this is because Paramount, which currently owns the rights to the book, has reached something of a creative lull on Dunces, and the project appears orphaned by the regime change that resulted in producer Scott Rudin’s exodus to Disney (e-mails to Paramount went unreturned). But at a grander level, this is the latest hitch in a litany of woe that has conspired to keep the film from being made. Even Kramer, its most tireless advocate, has begun to doubt whether the project will ever get out of development hell.


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