“Not a perfect read” – The Unfilmable Confederacy of Dunces by Stephan Eicke

IMG_2023-1-26-131739Stephan Eicke’s book about John Kennedy Toole’s legendary novel requires a little bit of unpacking. In the first instance, if you don’t know, Confederacy of Dunces was written, shopped to Simon & Schuster (who didn’t want it) and then John Kennedy Toole took his own life. His mum then shopped the book around for a decade, receiving countless rejections, only to finally get it published – and see it win a Pulitzer Prize. In the intervening years, Toole has become a sort of patron saint of unpublished writers, an emblem that publisher and agents (the gatekeepers to literary stardom) can get it wrong. Of course, it’s not quite as clear cut as all of that (there may have been other reasons why Toole took his life and his mother – who comes off well in the legend – may herself have been a difficult person to live with). One visitor to Thelma Toole’s house in later years described it thus:

“The hothouse atmosphere of Thelma’s domain was immediately and oppressively evident the moment we stepped into her diminutive, overstuffed and rundown parlour. Ken’s mother had turned this squalid room into a shrine to her posthumously famous son. Posters of anti-hero Ignatius and photographs of John Kennedy Toole covered every wall, sprinkled with pictures of Thelma herself.”

Fast forward to Eicke’s book. Just as the novel struggled to be published, so the film – which, at the time of writing, has not been made – was something of a rolling stone that gathered all kinds of greedy moss (not least lots and lots of greedy people all looking to make a dollar offof the property). The names attached to the movie adaptation of Confederacy of Dunces may well prove enticement enough to wanting to read this book: from John Belushi to John Candy, from Steven Soderbergh to Stephen Fry, from Philip Seymour Hoffman to Zach Galifianakis, from Harvey Weinstein to Shirley Maclaine – all these and a great many more wrestled with Ignatius Reilly, the prime mover of Toole’s novel.

Now, it should be said, I am a huge fan of Confederacy of Dunces. There are days when it even vies for first place in my favourite books list. It’s hilarious and bad tempered and sweet and sad and dark and offensive and at times quite unlike anything else. If you’ve never read it, read it. I find Toole’s story sad (how could you not?) and the further details elaborated upon by Eicke in what amounts to the afterlife of Confederacy of Dunces make you wonder if Toole is forever spinning in his coffin. There are a lot of stories contained herein that will have you chuckling ruefully or shaking your head or shaking your fist to the heavens (see the kinds of people who buy properties they don’t like in order to sit on them and stop them being made – there’s a special corner of Hell reserved for you people).

At the same time, there are moments where you wish Eicke had had a sterner editor (there are elaborations on what happened to people who were peripherally involved with the outer reaches of a production, who are no longer with us, that extend to includes romances had by the children of those people who are no longer with us, that have you thinking – is this, strictly speaking, relevant?) and there are sadly times when a proofreader is required (a handful of typos have squeaked their way through to the finished copy) as well as what has to be described as one of the weirdest editorial choices I’ve ever chanced across in a fair few years of reading (both the preface and the summary have a first couple of pages divided into two columns that require you to read column one across both pages before returning to the first page to read column two).

But (you knew there was a but coming didn’t you?) that doesn’t take away from the fact that – if you are one of the great many people who idolise Toole’s most famous book or, indeed, one of those people who can’t get enough of insider film knowledge – The Unfilmable Confederacy of Dunces will likely tell you a lot about stuff you weren’t previously aware of. Eicke is at his best when he is writing about the book itself and his obvious passion sweeps you up. If you can get to the end of this book without wanting to re-read the lodestone that started all of this… well, you’re a better person than me. The Unfilmable Confederacy of Dunces will also have you demanding that someone gets off their arse, cuts through the red tape and serves up a goddamn film of the book. Finally.

Any Cop?: Not a perfect read by any means but entertaining enough to warrant a recommendation from us.

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