A Dog Named Rex

Consider Gus Levy:

“. . . a nice guy. He was also a regular fellow. He had friends among promoters and trainers and coaches and managers across the country. At any arena or stadium or track Gus Levy could count on knowing at least one person connected with the place. He knew owners and ticket sellers and players. He even got a Christmas card every year from a peanut vendor who worked the parking lot across from Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. He was very well liked. (A Confederacy of Dunces, p. 202)

Levy was also the owner of Levy Pants, of late the workplace of Our Hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, where he had made himself at home among the filing cabinets, posting a a hand-lettered sign saying “Department of Research and Reference: I. J. Reilly” (97). Gus Levy met Ignatius after a fracas in the office left Ignatius and his co-worker, Miss Trixie in a heap on the floor. Intent on making a positive impression, Ignatius had announced to Levy that he has taken an interest in his business and will help him with innovations. But Ignatius quite to the contrary, responds to a letter from a client, Abelman’s Dry Goods, with extensive insults and addresses Abelman as “Mongoloid, Esq.” (105). Abelman, obviously not to be intimidated, responds with a threat of legal action.

After discovering his company is on the brink of bankruptcy because of the bungling machinations of a cloistered, anachronistic crusader, Gus Levy, after convoluted campaign, finally reaches the home of his antagonist on Constantinople Street in a declining neighborhood among

(31) a block of houses built in the 1880s and 90s, wooden Gothic and Gilded Age relics that dripped carving and scrollwork, Boss Tweed suburban stereotypes separated by alleys so narrow that a yardstick could almost bridge them and fenced in by iron pikes and low walls of crumbling brick. The larger houses had become impromptu apartment buildings, their porches converted into additional rooms. In some of the front yards there were aluminum carports, and bright aluminum awnings had been installed on one or two of the buildings. It was a neighborhood that had degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a block that had moved into the twentieth century carelessly and uncaringly—and with very limited funds.

 The address . . . was the tiniest structure on the block, aside from the carports, a Lilliput of the eighties. A frozen banana tree, brown and stricken, languished against the front of the porch, the tree preparing to collapse as the iron fence had done long ago. Near the dead tree there was a slight mound of earth and a leaning Celtic cross cut from plywood.

(307) Mr. Levy climbed the steps and read the “Peace at Any Price” sign tacked to one of the porch posts and the “Peace to Men of Good Will” sign tacked to the front of the house. This was the place all right. Inside a telephone was ringing.

 “They not home!” a woman screamed from behind a shutter next door. “They telephone’s been ringing all morning.”

 The front shutters of the adjoining house opened and a harried

 (308) looking woman came out on the porch and rested her red elbows on her porch rail.

 “Do you know where Mr. Reilly is?” Mr. Levy asked her.

 “All I know is he’s all over this morning’s paper. Where he oughta be is in a asylum. My nerves is shot to hell. When I moved next door to them people, I was signing my death warrant.”

 “Does he live here alone? A woman answered the phone once when I called.”

 “‘That musta been his momma. Her nerves is shot, too. She musta went to get him out the hospital or wherever they got him.”

 “Do you know Mr. Reilly well?”

 “Ever since he was a kid. His momma was sure proud of him. All the sisters at school loved him he was so precious. Look how he ended up, laying in a gutter. Well, they better start thinking about moving off my block. I can’t take it no more. They’ll really be arguing now.”

 “Let me ask you something. You know Mr. Reilly well. Do you think he’s very irresponsible or maybe even dangerous?”

 “What you want with him?” Miss Annie’s bleary eyes narrowed. “He’s in some other kinda trouble?”

 “I’m Gus Levy. He used to work for me.”

 “Yeah? You don’t say. That crazy Idnatius was sure proud of that job he had at that place. I useta hear him telling his momma how he was really making good. Yeah, he made good. A few weeks and he was fired. Well, if he worked for you, you really know him good.”

 Had that poor Reilly kook really been proud of Levy Pants? He had always said that he was. That was one good sign of his insanity.

 “Tell me. Hasn’t he been in trouble with the police. Doesn’t he have some kind of police record?”

 “His momma had a policeman coming around her. A regular undercover agent. But not that Idnatius. For one thing his momma likes her little nip. I don’t see her drunk much lately, but for a while there she was really going good. One day I look out in the backyard and she had herself all tangled up in a wet sheet hanging off the line. Mister, it’s already took ten years off my life living next to them people. Noise! Banjos and trumpets and screaming and hollering and the TV. Them Reillys oughta go move out in the country somewheres on a farm. Every day I gotta take six, seven aspirin.” Miss Annie reached inside the neckline of her housedress to find some strap that had slipped from (309) her shoulder. “Lemme tell you something. I gotta be fair. That Idnatius was okay until that big dog of his died. He had this big dog useta bark right under my window. That’s when my nerves first started to go. Then the dog dies. Well, I think, now maybe I’ll get me some peace and quiet. But no. Idnatius is got the dog laid out in his momma’s front parlor with some flowers stuck in its paw. That’s when him and his momma first started all that fighting. To tell you the truth, I think that’s when she started drinking. So Idnatius goes over to the priest and ax him to come say something over the dog. Idnatius was planning on some kinda funeral. You know? The priest says no, of course, and I think that’s when Idnatius left the Church. So big Idnatius puts on his own funeral. A big fat high school boy oughta know better. You see that cross?” Mr. Levy looked hopelessly at the rotting Celtic cross in the frontyard. “That where it all happened. He had about two dozen little kids standing around in that yard watching him. And Idnatius had on a big cape like Superman and they was candles burning all over. The whole time his momma was screaming out the front door for him to throw the dog in the garbage can and get in the house. Well, that’s when things started going bad around here.”

 While Levy was absorbing this information, Ignatius and his mother came wheeling to the curb before the house, and were promptly engaged in an imbroglio over Inez’s engagement to the gentle, well-meaning Claude Robichaux. Gus Levy stood, transfixed by the absurd tableaux.

 (311) (Irene) had fallen to her knees and was asking the sky, “What I done wrong, God? Tell me, Lord. I been good.”

 “You’re kneeling on Rex’s grave!” Ignatius shouted.

We can all understand how powerful the death of a beloved pet can affect anyone, particularly a boy such as Ignatius who was overweight (a “big fat high school boy”) and assuredly precocious, neither trait likely to endear him to others his age. Perhaps we could reason that, for Ignatius, the dog Rex was the only creature who loved him wholeheartedly and without reserve. For that love to be negated by his Church and scorned by his mother (“throw the dog in the garbage can”) amounted to an apocalypse for Ignatius, for whom that love had almost if not actual divine connotations. Seeing his mother not only kneeling on Rex’s grave, but praying, triggers such an outrage in Ignatius, as if she were committing some sort of profound blasphemy. Perhaps we can find sufficient theological implications in these passages to suggest that the death of Rex (“the king”) is for Ignatius nothing less than the death of God.

Perhaps. Yet, bearing in mind that A Confederacy of Dunces is nothing if not a work of genius employing absurdity, slapstick, and a winsome affection to tell the story of a modern-day crusader, we shouldn’t expect Toole to craft an—albeit offstage—character with anything approaching unrelenting gravity. Indeed, we find a generous dose of camp/Rebalaisian comedy earlier in the novel.

Ignatius and Irene have been at it again, and Ignatius has bolted to his room for refuge. Again, note the theological language in the passage:

(26) Ignatius pulled his flannel nightshirt up and looked at his bloated stomach. He often bloated while lying in bed in the morning contemplating the unfortunate turn that events hd taken since the reformation. Doris Day and Greyhound Senicruisers, whenever they came to mind, created an even more rapid expansion of his central region. But since the attempted arrest and the accident, he had been bloating for (27-28) almost no reason at all, his pyloric valve snapping shut indiscriminately and filling his stomach with trapped gas, gas which had character and being and resented its confinement. He wondered whether his pyloric valve might be trying, Cassandralike, to tell him something. As a medievalist Ignatius believed in the rota Fortunae, or wheel of fortune, a central concept in De Consolatione Philosophiae, the philosophical work which had laid the foundation for medieval thought. Boethius, the late Roman who had written the Consolatione while unjustly imprisoned by the emperor, had said that a blind goddess spins us on a wheel, that our luck comes in cycles. Was the ludicrous attempt to arrest him the beginning of a bad cycle? Was his wheel rapidly spinning downward? The accident was also a bad sign. Ignatius was worried. For all his philosophy, Boethius had still been tortured and killed. Then Ignatius’ valve closed again, and he rolled over on his left side to press the valve open.

 “Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,” Ignatius belched. “Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.”

 “What you mumbling about in there, boy?” his mother asked through the closed door.

 “I am praying,” Ignatius answered angrily.

 “Patrolman Mancuso’s coming today to see me about the accident. You better say a little Hail Mary for me, honey.

 “Oh, my God,” Ignatius muttered.

 “I think it’s wonderful you praying, babe. I been wondering what you do locked up in there all the time.”

 “Please go away!” Ignatius screamed. “You’re shattering my religious ecstasy.”

 Bouncing up and down on his side vigorously, Ignatius sensed a belch rising in his throat, but when he expectantly opened his mouth, he omitted only a small burp. Still, the bouncing had some physiological effect. Ignatius touched the small erection that was pointing downward into the sheet, held it, and lay still trying to decide what to do. In this position, with the red flannel nightshirt around his chest and his massive stomach sagging into the mattress, he thought somewhat sadly that after eighteen years with his hobby it had become merely a mechanical physical act stripped of the flights of fancy and invention that he had once been able to bring to it. At one time he had almost developed it into an art form, practicing the hobby with the skill and fervor of an artist and philosopher, a scholar and gentleman. There were still hidden in his room several accessories which he had once used, a rubber glove, a piece of fabric from a silk umbrella, a jar of Noxema (sic). Putting them away again after it was all over had eventually grown too depressing.

 Ignatius manipulated and concentrated. At last, a vision appeared, the familiar figure of the large and devoted collie that had been his pet when he was in high school. “Woof!” Ignatius almost heard Rex say, once again. “Woof! Woof! Arf!” Rex looked so lifelike. One ear dropped. He panted. The apparition jumped over a fence and chased a stick that somehow landed in the middle of Ignatius’ quilt. As the tan and white fur grew closer, Ignatius’ eyes dilated, crossed, and closed, and he lay wanly back among his four pillows, hoping that he had some Kleenex in his room.

St. Teresa envisioned an angel carrying a long, golden spear with a fiery tip. ‘[He] plunged it into my deepest inward. When he drew it out, I thought my entrails would be drawn out too and when he left me. I glowed in the hot fire of love for God.” I’d be among the many who might present this passage as a precedent for religious eroticism.

But let’s remember where we are—in a world rife with absurd, comic scenarios—and who we’re dealing with—delusional, immature Ignatius J. Reilly, whose “hobby”, however stripped of the “flights of fancy and invention” retained the “vision” of the large and devoted collie,” Rex, chasing a stick that had somehow landed in his lap. This is nothing less than fierce, grubby auto-eroticism juxtaposed with an embracive sweep of western spirituality, another brilliant stroke to Toole’s portrait of Ignatius.

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