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The Only Serious Philosophical Question

Posted: Sep 14, 2008

The recent death (September 12) of novelist David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest), was a shock and a great loss to the literary world. My heart goes out to his family and friends.

Wallace's death, an apparent suicide at the age of 46, brings back a flood of memories about the death of Louisiana novelist John Kennedy Toole. Toole was only 31 when he took his own life in 1969, eleven years before the publication of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole did not live to see any of his works in print or to accept the Pulitzer Prize. We knew little or nothing about him until his posthumuous novel was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. The novel quickly developed a cult following---myself among them.

Toole's mother, who came across her son's manuscript while sorting through his possessions, took the manuscript to Walker Percy insisting that he read it. Percy wrote in his foreword to the book that the last thing in the world he wanted to do was to deal with the mother of a dead novelist much least read a novel that she claimed was great. But read it he did, and due to Percy's considerable influence, the novel was published and became an overnight sensation.

A Confederacy of Dunces is a bizarre and fascinating novel set in colorful New Orleans and populated with strange and peculiar people, not the least of which it the novel's protagonist, the physically repugnant and utterly brilliant Ignatius J. Reilly. To this very day, over twenty-five years after I first read the novel, scenes and lines come back to me with startling clarity. I can just see Reilly's long-suffering mother, hat jammed determinedly on her little head, and the venerable Miss Trixie raising up from her desk where she has been asleep since arriving at work to ask "Am I retired yet?" And I smile with delight when I recall Reilly's fuitless but occasionally devastating crusade against the establishment.

In fact, just the mere thought of Ignatius J. Reilly can send me into fits of laughter. But before you run out and buy the book, let me warn you that I have a twisted sense of humor. Percy himself said " I hesitate to use the word comedy--though comedy it is--for that implies simply a funny book and this novel is a great deal more than that. A rumbling farce of Falstaffian dimensions would better describe it...." Let me assure you that if you have not read A Confederacy of Dunces, you have missed one of the great treats of Southern literature.

Hearing of Wallace’s suicide set me to thinking about writers who have taken their own lives, and particularly about the theme of suicide in the literature of the south. For a more in depth examination of this topic, go to Suicide and the South here on Swampland.

---Penne J. Laubenthal

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TeachBES says...

I enjoyed this read, as I have all you have shared, Penne. You never fail to exhibit amazing literary talent. I happened to see this post on Facebook, but I have missed many of your articles. If you would, please send me an email when you post. I'll be the first in line to check out the article. HUGGSSS!!!

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