But I read it last month, not ten years ago. Ten years ago my high school teacher assigned me Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 to educate me on the dangers of McCarthyism. At first she assigned me The Crucible for the same purpose, but the school district stopped her because it was her own, censored version without "sick words from the mouths of demon-possessed people." So Fahrenheit 451 it was. . . and she said if every student brought a copy to class on Monday she would let us watch a few of her favorite reality television shows—"Hey! Whoa! Oo-wee!" says Burma Jones of A Confederacy of Dunces.
Just because Burma Jones wasn't impressed with her offer, it doesn't mean I wasn't. Reality television is great. I have always loved coming home at night and watching assholes on the television make millions—especially after a long day of watching assholes at the café make my drinks wrong, assholes on the bus make old ladies stand, assholes stopped at green lights make-out, assholes in blue uniforms make mistakes, and assholes at the urinal next to mine make fun. Even an old man who's literary and literarily like Ray Bradbury would enjoy reality television. I know I do.
And on Friday I went to my school library to get a copy of Fahrenheit 451 so on Monday I could watch assholes make millions with my asshole teacher. In those days I usually went to the library to write, not read. So after ignoring the graffiti on the front door that said, "Forsley was here," I asked the librarian for assistance. The librarian told me he was the principal. He said due to that year's budget cuts he had to lay the librarian—"Hey! Whoa! Oo-wee"—off and use her salary on the football team's acne medication. Then he told me he had a PhD in Education and that Fahrenheit 451 was in the "F" section, obviously. I looked hard but it was no use: I couldn't find the book and the principal wasn't intimidated. He ordered me out because the library was closing.
It wasn't closing for the weekend. It was closing forever. George W Bush had just passed the No Child Left Behind Act and it was more important for students to learn how to fill in bubbles on standardized tests than how to obtain and retain knowledge. You would think after he woke up from a cocaine crash to a naked squad of incomprehensible squawking cheerleaders at the high school level and announced, in 2004 at the United States Conference of Mayors, "that the illiteracy level of our children are appalling," he would revise the act. But no—budget cuts were needed and so were No. 2 pencils. The books had to burn.
If I showed up to class without Fahrenheit 451, my asshole teacher wouldn't let me watch the assholes on television. . . and if I showed up without any book, she would fail me and then I would fail society. I didn't want to fail society. I wanted society to fail me so I could move to San Francisco and demand money from tourists on Haight Street. And for society to fail me I needed a book, any book.
I would have grabbed the Bible, which was the first book I saw, but the priest who baptized me was hiding in Ireland because of how he baptized me—so before leaving the library I grabbed the second book I saw. It had an illustration of Ignatius Reilly on it:
"A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs."
Ignatius is the protagonist of Toole's tragicomic tale, A Confederacy of Dunces, and he is the protagonist I have unknowingly emulated in the tragicomic tale that is my life.
On Monday I showed up to class a half-hour late with Ignatius. My teacher became angry—because she had hoped I wasn't going to show—and she displayed her anger by attacking Ignatius. First she attacked him verbally, calling him an obese bastard who masturbates to memories of a dog. Then she attacked him physically, tearing A Confederacy of Dunces into shreds. And lastly she attacked him spiritually, calling Toole, his creator, a hack whose garbage novel is read only because people mistakenly assume any author who commits suicide is worth reading.
I disagree. Toole was a genius whose comic masterpiece is read because people correctly assume any author who commits suicide is worth reading. Suicide proves that a writer is depressed, crazy, or OCD. A depressed writer writes insightful books, a crazy writer writes entertaining books, and if a writer with OCD commits suicide, it means the writer took the revision process fucking serious—serious enough to result in not only suicide. . . but also a flawlessly structured book. Yes, any writer who commits suicide is worth reading.
My teacher, though, didn't let me read A Confederacy of Dunces. She failed me and I was on my way to failing society. But then I reminded her that I was a white boy from a middle-class family. She apologized, gave me a standardized test, a No. 2 pencil, and a chance to redeem myself: if I filled in enough right white bubbles, she would give me a passing grade and a head-start on my way to achieving the American dream.
I was nervous, but I relaxed when I saw that the test only asked three questions. The first was: "What is porridge made from, Rice or Oats?" The second: "How do you answer in the affirmative, See or Yes?" Those two were easy. The third question—"What color is your skin, Black or White?"—was harder. I had a lot of tattoos and a Run DMC line stuck in my head that went, "I'm black and I'm proud, and I'll say it loud," but I also had a lot of relatives in the IRA and a bloody mole on my ass. I filled in the right white bubble, aced the test, and passed the class. Then I visited a dermatologist who told me to stop listening to Run DMC or else I would get skin cancer.
The next thing I knew I was in college. . . and I didn't read a single book—not The Crucible, not Fahrenheit 451, not the Bible, and definitely not A Confederacy of Dunces—to get there. What did I study? English Literature, of course. I knew that's where the chicks were—chicks with smooth skin and little tits, not yellow feathers and little tweets. Actually a chick in my class named Daisy did tweet. She tweeted me the answers on my final exams. "Green light = American Dream," she wrote. The tweets didn't get me into bed with her or shot while swimming, but they did get me, after seven years, a college degree and a step closer to my own green light.
Even though I didn't read a single book before or during college, I became a passionate reader in the years that followed—often blowing into my girlfriend's ear and caressing her thighs while reciting my favorite passages from Mark Twain's "The United States of Lyncherdom." But I didn't read A Confederacy of Dunces until last month. If I had read it earlier, I would have a career, a mortgage, and a retirement plan right now.
If I had read it earlier, I would have known that "the United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency." And I would have studied architecture instead English Literature and dedicated myself to building a Cathedral instead of a literary reputation.
If I had read it earlier, I would have known that "you can always tell employees of the government by the total vacancy which occupies the space where most other people have faces." And I would have smoked a joint with one of the Italian Masons building my Cathedral instead of the undercover cop who gave me a fine and a throbbing cold sore.
If I had read it earlier, I would have known that my masturbation hobby would "become merely a mechanical physical act stripped of the flights of fancy and invention that [I] had once been able to bring to it." And I would have waited for that throbbing cold sore to leave before proposing to my girlfriend.
If I had read A Confederacy of Dunces earlier, I would have known that "With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste gained ascendancy." And I would have obeyed those gods, became a dunce, and joined the confederacy.
If I had read it earlier, I would be lying in bed passionately reading to my wife. But I read it last month. So I'm lying in bed writing this on a Big Chief tablet. I think it's an innovative and witty piece, but it's really a "rather dated and boring effort" because I allowed Mark Twain to permanently influence me before reading A Confederacy of Dunces and learning that "veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate."
John Kennedy Toole, through Ignatius Reilly, said it best: "Before me lies a day fraught with God knows what horrors."
Christopher Forsley writes and lives in San Francisco. He contributes to 16th & Mission Comix. His book of satire, Bums of the Bay, was recently published by Seven7h Tangent. Later this year Spark Plug Comics will release his first graphic novel, A Joe Story.
Share on Facebook
Tweet about this Piece
Poor Mojo's Tip Jar: