Archive for November 2004

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

13 November 2004
Categories: From the armchair

coverIn October 2004, I went on a weekend-long company trip to New Orleans. Amid the usual (and not-so-usual) team-building exercises we were given some time to explore the city on our own. While many of my compatriots headed out to Bourbon Street immediately after landing for a long evening of drinking and debauchery, I ordered an early wake-up call and hit the sack.

In the pre-dawn darkness of a rainy Saturday morning (a rain that effectively never let up for the entire weekend, as tropical storm Matthew was parked just offshore in the Gulf), I wandered out of our Canal Street hotel and hopped aboard the classic old St. Charles streetcar line.

This may rank as the highlight of a fun weekend. Being a railfan, I really enjoy riding the transit systems of the cities I visit—the cable cars of San Francisco being another recent case. And I’ve come to realise that even beyond the visual treat the outmoded hardware provides, and the operational quirks of the system (such as the fact that twice the streetcar stopped—powerless—when tree branches, soaked from several days of rain and hanging low, knocked the trolley pole off of the catenary wire), for me a big part of the experience must be the unique smells and sounds. For example, I’ll never forget the rich machine-oil aroma of the now-defunct red cars of New York’s #7 line. (I know, I know, it’s a little weird to appreciate the smell of a New York subway.) And in the case of the St. Charles streetcar, the most memorable part was the rackety pucka-pucka-pucka noise that the reciprocating compressor under the floor made as it recharged the cylinder for the air brakes—something you won’t find in the modern cars of the Canal Street line.

With time to spare before an intended eight a.m. breakfast at the Bluebird Café, I figured on riding past my stop for a while and then turning back on another car. But I overestimated the distances involved, or perhaps was having too much fun listening to the air compressor and watching its pressure gauge fluctuate, and I wound up riding right out to the end of the line. It was a surprise to say to myself “well, I’ll get out at the next stop,” step off, and find that the rails ended five feet past the car’s bluff prow. It was there that I took this photograph, a lucky shot that I really like. I like the way the colourful umbrellas brighten up a hazy shot of dark green (the cars and the surrounding foliage) and grey (the gloomy, low-hanging rain clouds), and how I managed to catch the moment where the motorman on the right, pulling on a rope, is just about to set his trolley pole against the overhead wire.

St. Charles streetcar terminus at Carrollton and Claiborne Avenues,
New Orleans, 9 October 2004. Photo Credit: Kevin S. Forsyth.

After an excellent breakfast at the Bluebird (where the astute waitress suggested a perfect compromise for my indecision and brought a half-order of the huevos rancheros and a short stack of pecan pancakes) and a visit to the National D-Day Museum (which I emphatically recommend), I returned to Canal Street for the afternoon’s activities. It was then that I stumbled across the Chateau Sonesta Hotel—or more to the point, the bronze statue and plaque underneath the hotel’s front awning. It turns out the hotel is an adaptive reuse of the D. H. Holmes department store, where the opening scene of A Confederacy of Dunces takes place, and the statue is of Ignatius J. Reilly, tragic/comic antihero, as he waits for his mother beneath the Holmes clock. The nearby plaque quotes a paragraph of the book’s first page, setting the scene in order to explain the odd, rumpled subject of the bronze.

(To be honest, I have a couple of problems with this statue. One problem is that the scale is too small; Ignatius is both a larger-than-life character and is described as physically towering and massive, yet the statue is fairly diminutive, no more than about 5’8″. The other problem is the placement. Appropriately for a statue, it is prominently centered beneath the clock; yet Ignatius is, above all else, an observer from the fringes of a crowd. He is much more likely to be found lurking about off to one side, and though the book never explicitly states that, it is easily inferred.)

So I’m really talking around the subject here, which is the book A Confederacy of Dunces. Perhaps that’s because it’s a difficult book to categorize or describe. I first read it some time around my freshman year in college, and found it hilarious and endearing and perhaps more than a little subversive. In short, I loved it, and when I first built this web site I was quick to place Dunces on my all-time favourites list. Yet my recollections were becoming increasingly vague, and I had for some time been meaning to re-read the book and re-assess my opinion of it. And so, when I found myself at the site of the D.H. Holmes store, staring into a rendering of those “supercilious blue and yellow eyes,” I knew that Fortuna’s wheel had turned to the right place for me to partake of John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece once again. (During the subsequent reading several other coincidences between the book and the rest of my life arose, which reinforced my decision.)

I still find A Confederacy of Dunces to be a truly hysterical ride. Its characters are genuinely rendered and offer an intriguing snapshot of New Orleans life in the early 1960s. (Many local residents are apparently less than enthusiastic about this fact, and about the book’s popularity in general.) And the crazy interconnected upheavals that Ignatius causes to occur, often merely by his existence—all the while blaming Fortuna—are inspired and unforgettable.

This book has no comparison in modern literature. It’s a crying shame that Toole took his own life without providing us with any other examples of his genius. (The only other Toole publication, The Neon Bible, was written when he was only sixteen and while it shows vague hints of his later abilities, it is a mediocre, formative work that certainly only saw the light of day due to the brilliance of Dunces and its well-deserved Pulitzer prize. The Neon Bible is, unfortunately, both a distraction and a detraction.) But thanks to the diligence of the author’s mother who pushed the book on publishers for years, and the vision of author Walker Percy who knew a good thing when he begrudgingly read it, we are now blessed with a true American classic.