New Orleans

In the opening scene of the wonderful novel A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly stands under the clock in front of the D.H. Holmes department store in New Orleans, waiting for his mother. He’s approached by a policeman, who finds it hard to ignore the obese, flatulent, and belching protagonist, slovenly dressed and wearing a green hunting cap with earflaps. So begins one of the most hilarious novels I’ve ever read…. and one which has a special memory for me because it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever read a book that I couldn’t continue because I was laughing so hard. My eyes watered over and tears streamed down my face, so I stopped for thirty seconds to compose myself…. but when I picked up the book to continue, I couldn’t get any further because it happened yet again.

Confederacy of Dunces & Ignatius J. Reilly

My wife, observing this, couldn’t wait to read it…. but then sat with a straight face the whole time “waiting for the funny part.” So it was with considerable trepidation that I decided to re-read this quintessential New Orleans novel during a trip to the Big Easy. Would I still find it so amusing almost four decades later?

I needn’t have worried. John Kennedy Toole’s book is a rollicking story that riffs on blacks, gays, feminists, college professors, the police, capitalists, communists and just about everybody else in this early 1960s New Orleans jambalaya mix. The 30-year old Reilly is lazy, lives at home with his mother, has considerable difficulty holding onto a job – & spends his time instead writing notebooks full of his views about the world (relying heavily on the Roman goddess Fortuna and philosopher Boethius). When these views clash with the reality of modern New Orleans…. well, I’m sure you can imagine a latter-day, obese Don Quixote with a hot-dog vendor’s cart rather than a trusty steed.

Andrew Jackson & St. Louis Cathedral

I made it a point on this R&R trip to visit the site of the novel’s opening scene on Canal Street, which has now been marked with a statue of Reilly (photo above). But the Confederacy story has a rather sad true-life ending…. despite the novel’s brilliance the author had trouble getting it published, fell into depression, and committed suicide at the age of 31; twelve years later, in 1981, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

I hadn’t been in New Orleans for almost that same period of time – and this visit gave me a chance to re-visit some standard NOLA sites (the French Quarter & Bourbon Street, the Garden District, Jackson Square, etc.) & feast on some delectable NOLA cuisine: po’boys & chargrilled oysters, breakfast at Brennan’s, beignets at Café du Monde, etc. But the visit included newer landmarks as well: the 9th Ward (with many houses still boarded up, a dozen years after the Katrina flooding) and the repaired site of the 17th Street levee break.

Hirsute air pollution guy

In that last trip to New Orleans in 1979 I had presented a paper at a technical conference about siting air pollution monitors — & while that technical paper is now long forgotten, the published proceedings still shows some young guy with a (short-lived, & very scraggly) beard. Whatever was he thinking??

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