If you expect to read a book where the protagonist is likeable, handsome and charming, then look elsewhere. Ignatius J Reilly is none of the above, yet he is one of the great characters of American literature.
It’s the summer of 1962 in New Orleans, and Ignatius at 30 has spent most of his life trying to avoid doing anything that resembles work. His deprived mother has spent the family savings on Ignatius’s 10-year college education, and desperate for money to pay the bills, orders her son to hit the streets and get a job for the first time in his life. As he goes out in search of work Ignatius, massively overweight and bizarrely dressed in a green hunting cap, encounters a plethora of larger than life characters, several of which he cleverly coerces into doing his work for him.
Meanwhile, Myrna “the Minx” Minkoff, a revolutionary student Ignatius meets at college, is exchanging letters with Ignatius, from New York. They try to outdo each other, describing how each will rescue the depraved sections of society. And this is where much of the great humour in this book arises, such as when Ignatius addresses a group of “sodomites” from the French Quarter of New Orleans at a house party. He implores them to infiltrate the army and overthrow the government, but all they want to do is drink and dance. Ignatius’s efforts are not altruistic and nothing goes to plan, but he still manages to keep planning for a future where there is “proper geometry and theology”. He is a lost cause, but a highly entertaining one.
Despite the book at times verging on pantomime, Toole manages to keep it reined in just enough to be believable. The descriptions of New Orleans in the ‘60s enable the city of Toole’s birth to become a whole character of its own.
The tragedy of the novel is not only Ignatius’s unfulfilled life, but that it took almost 20 years to be published and claimed the life of the author in 1969, who suicided due to depression. Toole did receive posthumously the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, but the audience of readers he craved have been deprived of further works of genius.