A Confederacy of Dunces, Starting Right Here

February 17, 2009 at 7:33 am (Uncategorized)

Heavy sighing going on here, in between bites of custard tart. Well, until I polished it off, anyway. Now it’s just the heavy sighing, although I wish I had another custard tart. It’s raining again, and although that may have something to do with my sweet tooth, it’s unrelated to the sighing, which is about the story I’ve just posted this afternoon to an annual short story competition. It’s the Alan Marshall Short Story Award, and one of the other Darklings has a much finer, shall we say plumed hat in the ring. Mine’s all moth-eaten and stained. 

At least, I’m just not excited. And if I’m not excited, I hardly expect anyone else to be. No, it’s all a bit ho hum, I’m afraid. I’ve now rewritten this particular story a number of times, and while it doesn’t offend me, it doesn’t really interest me either. I’ve written better. One story that I know is better – and the one the Darklings like best (you’ve read an earlier version of it too, Ms. M) just to really spell it out – isn’t ‘appropriate’ for the Alan Marshall, at least insofar as we can figure the award’s style. There’s a lot of cussin’ in my preferred story, and cussin’ doesn’t appear to cut much mustard down Nillumbik Shire way. Past winning entries suggest it’s a slightly more wholesome forum than suits my general f-word loving style. And so I’ve sent a story that’s scrubbed clean of every swear word except a sad, solitary “arse.” I didn’t write this story for the Alan Marshall, I wrote the first draft a couple of years ago, sent it off to something or other – a journal or another comp, I can’t remember which – where it was eventually rejected, and that was the end of that. Except now I’ve rewritten the fucking thing, several times in fact, and now I’ve gone and sent it off again. Let me assure the readers of this blog that one thing I won’t be doing between now and the announcement of the winner is holding my breath. 

Another deep, sorrowful sigh (come on, it’s a rainy Tuesday, just indulge me for a second, would you?!). I have so much antipathy toward the overall story that I’m not even sure why I bothered sending it. I suppose just to feel I wasn’t letting an opportunity pass me by. But then, in sending a story that doesn’t even move me, its author, isn’t that precisely what I’ve done? You and I both know it is. Which is a bugger, because there’s not enough time for me to try rectifying the situation with a better story. Not for the Alan Marshall, anyway, although there’ll always be a next time. That’s the sole consolation of rejection, I think, and it’s a big one: there’ll always be another opportunity, and one can always try again. Neither my prospects nor my reputation rest with the story I have just despatched to Victoria, and thank Christ for that. 

Anyway, I did want to say something about A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I’ve been meaning to tell you about it since I finished it, but other things kept getting in the way (I’m easily distracted – just look at that fascinating wall…). I first heard about Toole and his book in a non-fiction title I raved about here on DoctorDi at the time, Rick Gekoski’s Tolkien’s Gown. Gekoski recounts the devastating story of young Toole’s failed efforts to get his New Orleans commedia published. Finally despairing after  receiving a series of rejections, Toole killed himself, aged 32. But of course the story doesn’t end there. Toole’s mother isn’t given the most flattering portrait by Gekoski – he repeats the view that Mrs. Toole pushed so hard primarily because she felt strongly that her son’s failure reflected poorly on her own reputation – but the indisputable fact is that she doggedly refused to accept defeat and maintained an unwavering belief in the novel’s greatness. At some point in her crusade to find the novel a publisher, she set upon Walker Percy, then a lecturer at Loyola, and hung by his trouser leg until the little terrier finally persuaded her quarry to read the damn manuscript (which Percy describes in the novel’s foreword as  ‘a badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon’), which Percy duly did. 

Here’s the chronology at a glance: Toole writes the novel in the early sixties. He commits suicide in 1969. His mother starts badgering Percy in 1976. Percy reads the manuscript, promptly converts, and takes up Thelma Toole’s determined quest. A Confederacy of Dunces is first published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1980. In 1981 the novel wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Doesn’t it just give you shivers down your spine?

It’s impossible reading this tragi-comic modern American farce without thinking of what we were denied in Toole’s too early death. It’s such a waste. All that talent – and he didn’t live to see it acknowledged. It breaks my heart on so many levels, and I found myself addressing Toole in my head as I read his epic and, yes, screamed with laughter in too many venues to name. But a few: the ferry, the bus, my bed, my courtyard, in company and alone. I’m sure I was quite alarming to sit next to on public transport whilst I had this book eagerly clutched in my paws – there were frequent peals of high-pitched uncontrollable laughter. I was forced to wipe tears from my eyes, not once but several times. Never, ever, ever has a book given me this many occasions to laugh out loud. For that alone, I am forever in Toole’s debt. 

As a devoted student of the written word, I know enough to know there’s some rare genius at work here, and the rest of us don’t have a hope in hell of being this good. The pompous, outrageous, revolting, deluded and yet somehow incredibly endearing Ignatius J. Reilly is a character I will never forget and will cherish always. His misadventures through New Orleans, and the cast of absurdist characters – including one, no, two of the funniest, truest voices I’ve ever heard on any page anywhere – are so original and bizarre even as they’re intimately familiar and strangely beloved. I simply can’t explain it. I’ve never read anything like it, and yet as I was reading, I felt like I had walked those streets and known those people always. That feeling remains undiminished. 

It’s a sorry comparison to make with my pitiful Alan Marshall entry, let me tell you. I feel like a dunce, all right, but hey, compared to this guy, that’s exactly what I am. Now where’s that white conical cap?



  1. litlove said,

    Poor Di – but the rain and the competition and the fact of having connected so deeply to a book are clearly clubbing together here to bully your self-esteem. I’m willing to bet that your story is much better than you think it is, and that it will touch many a heart. Writers are not the best judges of their work always, alas. I’ve often thought something was dreadful, then perked up a bit when someone has said something nice about it. And I’ve thought something worked well, only to see a lot of readerly furrowed brows. Persistence is about the only thing we can judge objectively – and there the poor benighted Mr Toole has something to teach us all, right? Big hugs.

  2. doctordi said,

    Thank you, Litlove, but I fear your odds are off on this occasion. I’ve had another look at the story in question this morning, and it’s still coming up short. Very short. Midget like, in fact. But you win some, you lose some (strictly speaking, of course, I’ve, er, not won any, let alone some, but let’s not focus on that just now!). I’m learning. It’s a curious thing to have been a reader and writer all my life and yet know how much of a beginner I am now. It’s very much a case of starting over. And persisting, as you say.

    But yes, I completely agree that we are usually our own worst reader and critic. It’s probably healthy in a sick kind of way.

  3. Miriam said,

    Yeah, what litlove said. The only story of mine that ever got anywhere in anything was a thing I didn’t think much of. Whereas a story I’m actually proud of has been rejected about 8000 times. It’s all a bit of a crapshoot really.

  4. doctordi said,

    Seems to be, Ms. M, seems to be… and I guess that eases the pain of rejection, although in this case that’ll come because I’ve submitted an inferior piece of work. My just desserts, although god knows I prefer custard tarts.

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