Rearview Mirror: Confederacy of Dunces

Books Reviews
Rearview Mirror: Confederacy of Dunces

Hilarious New Orleans-based novel typifies city’s enduring, carefree spirit

When Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, bringing into question whether the city would ever recover from its devastations, my recurring thoughts were not of the physical city—the Port of New Orleans, the offshore-oil industry, the clubs and the restaurants and the quirky architecture—but of the very spirit of the place and its people. To wit: Did Ignatius J. Reilly and his mama and the others in his coterie make it? Is the Levy Pants factory still standing? Are drinks still being served at the Night of Joy club on Bourbon Street? Can you still buy a hot dog in the French Quarter from Paradise Vendors?

Those are all fictional, of course, the fantastic creations of John Kennedy Toole in his hilarious Pulitzer-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces, which, to me, has stood for New Orleans ever since its unlikely publication in 1980.

“Zany” and “farcical” are the words most often used to describe a book that really has two stories: that of the author and the novel itself. A native of New Orleans, educated at Tulane and Columbia in New York, Toole had done some teaching to support himself before digging in to produce his book. There was a close call with Simon & Schuster, which finally rejected the manuscript on the grounds that it “really isn’t about anything,” abetting Toole’s suicide in ’69.

It was his indomitable mother who finally carried the day—foisting her “genius” son’s work on novelist Walker Percy, resulting in the publication of Dunces by the LSU Press in ’80, leading to sales of two million copies in 18 languages. The world loved the story of this fat, arrogant, flatulent slacker and his devil-may-care romp through the underworld of lower-class New Orleans.

It’s precisely this underworld that I fancy the most about New Orleans—the poor people who make the music and cook the food and speak the curious Cajun patois (cher and I axt ya) who make the city so endearing. These were also the folks who didn’t have the wherewithal to escape the ravages of the hurricane.

Maybe New Orleans can be put back together the way it was, maybe not. (There’s an ironic twist to all the political squabbling: After the storm, the inept Federal Emergency Management Agency was being called a “confederacy of dunces.”) I’m betting that my New Orleans will make it… in the spirit of Ignatius J. Reilly and his band of merry pranksters.

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