As my eyelids drooped on the last leg of a road trip that began in New Orleans and encompassed a number of stops in the southeast, I was much relieved to hit the outer perimeter of this city. Perhaps it was just the drowsiness that accompanies long summer afternoon drives, but I found my mind drifting to a cherished fictional character named Ignatius J. Reilly. As we banked past the Superdome, a favorite line from the novel that made Reilly famous came to mind: “Outside, Bourbon Street was beginning to light up.”
I found my mind drifting to a cherished fictional character named Ignatius J. Reilly.
If you’ve read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), he’s likely etched in your memory. Flawed, cocky, and always ready to fling verbal barbs, Ignatius is an enigmatic and frustrating character, but he’s also like that annoying friend in college who’s regularly (if not always purposefully) the sharpest and funniest person in the room. In the end, despite your best efforts, you can’t really help but like him.
But Toole’s novel is much more than the overweight, green-hunting-cap-wearing, 30-year-old Reilly; it’s a novel about this city at a certain time and place that continues to resonate today.
A Confederacy of Dunces encompasses the French Quarter and its mash-up of food and drink and people from this country and many others; the way that you can move from one neighborhood to another and be perpetually entranced by all that is going on; and the distinctly New Orleanian whirl of light and sound that marks everything from Mardi Gras to late-night festivities at a Mid-City bar. If you haven’t read it — or even if you have — what follows are five reasons why you should make A Confederacy of Dunces your essential summer reading.
1. Its ability to render New Orleans to life
Countless writers have taken on New Orleans in a variety of genres — history, travel writing, poetry — and attempted to describe the physical dimensions of this city, and Toole is one of the best to ever do it. One of my favorite descriptions concerns Patrolman Mancuso, dressed only in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, riding a borrowed motorcycle up St. Charles Avenue.
Whenever I’m heading to the French Quarter near sunset, I think of Ignatius, grumpy troublemaker extraordinaire, taking a moment for that sumptuous sight of the sun dipping below the Mississippi.
Toole writes that the ancient oaks “arched over the avenue like a canopy shielding [Mancuso] from the mild winter sun that splashed and sparkled on the chrome of the motorcycle.” But it’s a few later lines that demonstrate Toole’s deep love for NOLA: “Patrolman Mancuso inhaled the moldy scent of oaks and thought, in a romantic aside, that St. Charles Avenue must be the loveliest place in the world.”
2. Its eccentric cast of characters
The novel presents a kaleidoscope of characters from all across the city. Lana Lee, a French Quarter strip club owner; Dr. Talc, an ineffectual Tulane professor; Mr. Clyde, the exasperated hot dog vendor; Mr. Gonzalez, Ignatius’ submissive manager at the Levy Pants company in the Bywater; Burma Jones, the strip club janitor. My favorite? Without a doubt, it’s the aforementioned Patrolman Mancuso, a hapless target of Reilly’s ire.
Early in the novel Patrolman Mancuso walks “slowly down Chartres Street dressed in ballet tights and a yellow sweater.” Why? His sergeant suggested that this type of outfit would enable Mancuso to “bring in genuine, bona fide suspicious characters.” Instead, as happens frequently in the novel, it leads to embarrassment for the patrolman and further comic relief for the reader. Mancuso loves to use disguises, and during his motorbike ride up St. Charles, in a surreal added layer, he was adorned with a long, fake red beard.
3. It’s Got Dat Accent
There is a very distinct New Orleans dialect, it has a name (Yat), and Toole does a remarkable job of putting it on the page. According to the Dialect Blog — a site where linguists, amateur enthusiasts, and actors discuss the world’s many English dialects — Yat has a similar sound to the New York City English dialect. Experts claim that Yat is especially common amongst working and middle-class whites, and has a set of familiar pronunciations. A Slate article on the same subject identified a short list of Yat terms: “’dese, dem, and doze’ for ‘these, them, and those’; ‘berl, earl, and ersters’ for ‘boil, oil, and oysters’; and ‘mudder for mother.’”
A Confederacy of Dunces is regularly cited as the most accurate literary representation of Yat.
The NYC/Yat accent connection is attributed to Irish immigration and the inherent cosmopolitan nature of port cities. A Confederacy of Dunces is regularly cited as the most accurate literary representation of Yat. See Ignatius’ mother, Irene Reilly, for a prime example of Yat speech.
4. It’ll Make You Want to Hit the Streets
Although it’s a novel that is filled with episodes of comedy, chaos, and beauty, it’s also some of the simple lines that will stick with you. On the second page of the novel, we find Ignatius looking up to see “the sun beginning to descend over the Mississippi at the foot of Canal Street.” Shortly after, Ignatius wanders “into the penny arcade on Royal Street to see whether any new games had been installed.”
Whenever I’m heading to the French Quarter near sunset, I think of Ignatius, grumpy troublemaker extraordinaire, taking a moment for that sumptuous sight.
But A Confederacy of Dunces also offers a constellation of opportunities for your own literary tour. For example, follow this: “At Constantinople Street he turned toward the river, sputtering and growling through a declining neighborhood until he reached a block of houses built in the 1880s and 90s, wooden and Gothic and Gilded Age relics that dripped carving and scrollwork . . .”
Get a copy, highlight the many lines like this, and hit the streets in order to bridge that gap between fiction and reality.
5. It Beat the Odds
The circumstances surrounding the novel’s publication were both fortuitous and tragic: the great Southern writer Walker Percy helped usher the book into print years after Toole had taken his own life. Toole’s mother was persistent in her efforts for her beloved son’s work to find a wider audience, and Percy, who was then teaching at Loyola, eventually (if reluctantly) agreed to read it.
This book may have remained a manuscript in a box somewhere. Instead, it’s gone on to become a true American classic.
If he hadn’t, this book may have remained a manuscript in a box somewhere. Instead, it’s gone on to become a true American classic. And the fact that A Confederacy of Dunces is out in the world is in many ways just as remarkable as its canonical status. Like New Orleans itself, Toole’s novel is both enticing and beguiling; it’s also a book that reflects this city’s appetites: bold, complex, and overlapping. Put it to the top of your summer reading list.
Photos by Paul Broussard