It was pouring on Canal Street. I was hobbled in New Orleans on a foot I didn’t know how I’d hurt, struggling back to my hotel from giving a TED talk at an anti-bullying conference, and it was getting dark and the storm had opened up ferociously. I ducked under a hotel awning, by the corner of Bourbon Street ... and there he was.
Beneath the clock he waited for his momma. Both flaps of his ridiculous hunting cap turned up, he was “studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency.”
At the base of the statue, a placard said this had indeed been the site of D.H. Holmes, the department store where we meet Ignatius J. Reilly in the opening scene of A Confederacy of Dunces, the funniest American novel ever written.
I’d never before been to New Orleans; but because I’d read the novel two or three times many years ago, I had already bought wine cakes for Ignatius inside Holmes with well-meaning Irene Reilly. I had ducked into the Night of Joy, the French Quarter’s least reputable club, with ill-paid porter Burma Jones; and I had ridden up St. Charles Avenue under a canopy of ancient trees with hapless Patrolman Mancuso, “undercover” in shorts, t-shirt and long fake red beard.
It’s central to the legend of A Confederacy of Dunces that its author, John Kennedy Toole, having failed to get his book published, committed suicide in 1969. His mother finally persuaded famed Southern novelist Walker Percy to read the manuscript. Percy was awestruck, but it took even him four more years to convince a small publisher to bring out the book, in 1980. Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize, and has since sold 1.5 million copies.
I think it’d be impossible to get this novel published today. It so celebrates Ignatius’s outlandish insensitivity, and its gay and African-American characters are at the same time stereotypical and strikingly human; the former aspect would sink the book. Nobody would touch it. But it’s with us forever, now — and like that statue in the rain, to run into it is to rediscover an old friend. To laugh at the memories. To have again, for a little while at least, a shelter from the storm.