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The story behind the funniest novel ever written

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Alex Christian visits New Orleans to trace the tragic origins of one of the funniest novels ever written

Outside the Hyatt on New Orleans’ Canal Street, the gateway to the city’s hedonistic French Quarter, I am standing beside a bronze statue. It’s of a young, stout man wearing a muffler over a flannel shirt, a handlebar moustache and a hunting cap, peering suspiciously into the distance. Tourists pour out of the hotel during the day, stumbling back in the early hours after the nightly Bourbon Street bar crawl, without giving it a second look. Maybe they’re choosing to ignore it.

The statue is of Ignatius J Reilly, one of the most unpleasant characters in all of literature, and perhaps the ultimate antihero of New Orleans. He was a character forged in the mind of the city’s finest – and most tragic – writer, John Kennedy Toole, in one of the funniest novels of all time, A Confederacy Of Dunces.

The statue is a marker of how entwined the book is with its setting, and I am here to trace the incredible story of Toole, and follow in the foul footsteps of Ignatius. Oliver Twist he ain’t. 

Dunces

Heading upriver

New Orleans’ greatest book was actually written 1,000 miles away in Puerto Rico. It was Toole’s letter – part poison pen, part love – to his hometown, after being drafted as an English instructor at Fort Buchanan in 1961.

Toole had written his first novel, The Neon Bible, when he was just 16 years old. A Southern Gothic tale of innocence lost, he regarded it as a failure because it didn’t win a literary contest. However, in 1963, he returned to his parents’ home with a manuscript that was on another level entirely. A riotous comic tale spawned from the trauma of his own life, the story was entitled A Confederacy Of Dunces and was sarcastically named after an epigraph by the satirist Jonathan Swift, which said that when a true genius appears, you’ll know him from this: “The dunces will be in confederacy against him.”

Toole’s mother, Thelma Ducoing, told him it was a masterpiece. Robert Gottlieb, Simon & Schuster’s senior editor, liked it too, but requested revisions before it could be published. Over the next two years, Toole made rewrite after rewrite, but never to Gottlieb’s satisfaction. By 1966, Toole gave up, deciding if he couldn’t have the best publisher in the world, he’d prefer none at all. He boxed up the manuscript and left it on top of a wardrobe in his bedroom. It would remain there, untouched, for nearly a decade. 

Dunces

John Kennedy Toole didn't live to see his novel published

THE FIERY ONE

Ignatius J Reilly is one of the all-time classic literary losers. A behemoth of gluttony and sloth, he’s a 30-year-old faux intellectual who spouts caustic medievalist angst against all those who offend his perceptions; a one-man lumbering crusade against American popular culture. Indeed, against pretty much any era that postdates the 6th-century Roman philosopher Boethius.

Dunces is a story that orbits around Ignatius. His chaotic pull ensures a miscellany of characters become sucked in. There’s Mancuso, a hapless patrolman who confuses Ignatius for a pervert and dons fancy-dress costumes to make “undercover” arrests; Claude, a McCarthyite-spewing grandfather who courts Mrs Reilly; and Jones, a resourceful and witty African-American forced into working at Bourbon Street strip club Night Of Joy after being framed for stealing cashew nuts.

The novel’s plot hinges on an event in the Night Of Joy, when Ignatius and his mother visit the bar. The pair’s behaviour clears the place, and on the way home Ignatius’s rantings cause his intoxicated mother to smash her Plymouth car into a French Quarter building. It means Ignatius has to help pay off the damage, and so he has to leave his yellow-stained bedsheets in the backroom of a shotgun house on Constantinople Street to be unleashed into the working world.

The Night Of Joy sadly wasn’t a real New Orleans venue, rather it was Toole’s embodiment of the bars that line Bourbon Street – a notorious stretch of clubs and watering holes that still transforms eight blocks of the French Quarter into a neon-lit disaster zone.

Its debauchery incurs the wrath of Ignatius several times in Dunces, but the bars along the strip are still good trashy fun for your average thinking drinker, with Creole architecture the setting for live jazz and blues bands playing round the clock. The deranged spirit of the Night Of Joy staggers on. 

On a more cultured note, I paid a visit to the Prytania Theatre, a beautiful single-screen cinema in Uptown, which appears in the book when Mrs Reilly recalls the “horrible” night Ignatius was conceived: her husband’s fumbling after their return from watching Clark Gable romance Red Dust. Indie Persian-language film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was being screened on my visit. No child was subsequently conceived. 

Dunces

Toole's Mother, Thelma, whose persistence led to his posthumous fame

Leaving the city

The next day I took a 45-minute streetcar ride, clattering through Uptown and rattling past Constantinople Street, to get to the Tooles’ final residence. It’s at the end of the St Charles Streetcar line in Carrollton, a quiet, bucolic area that’s a world away from the compact hustle of the French Quarter. A short stroll back downriver led me to Tulane University, where Toole returned in autumn 1968 to study for his doctorate. Toole, living with his controlling mother and dementia-ridden father, rarely left the family home and became increasingly withdrawn and paranoid.

By winter 1968, humiliated by Dunces’ rejection, Toole was mentally unravelling. Unable to hold down his teaching job and financially support his parents, he had a final, horrible argument with his mother on 19 January 1969. The next day he withdrew $1,500 and disappeared on a 66-day road trip across the US.

What Toole was searching for, no one will ever know. What we do know is that Toole stopped off in California and Georgia before heading back to New Orleans.
En-route, on 26 March 1969, he stopped in a wooded area on the outskirts of Biloxi, Mississippi. He ran a garden hose from his car’s exhaust pipe through the back window. Police found his corpse and a note addressed to his parents. Its contents will forever remain unknown: Thelma destroyed it, claiming that it contained “terrible, terrible things”.

Toole was 31 when he took his own life, denying the world a body of work that may have even surpassed A Confederacy Of Dunces. Only three people attended his funeral – his parents and his childhood nanny.

One day, a few years after Toole’s death, Thelma passed by her son’s bedroom. She’d walked into it countless times before, but this time she had a moment of clarity. She found, on top of a cedar armoire, her son’s masterpiece.

It became Thelma’s life work to get A Confederacy Of Dunces published. She sent the same tattered, stained copy of the manuscript to publisher after publisher. In 1976, she read that author Walker Percy was teaching at nearby Loyola University. She ambushed him in his office, handing him the manuscript.

Percy began reading Dunces as a courtesy, hoping it was bad enough to justify him politely sending it back to Thelma. Instead, he read on, in disbelief that he was reading such a brilliant work. However, it wasn’t until 1980 that A Confederacy Of Dunces was published by Louisiana State University Press. Yet, just a year later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The book has gone on to sell millions of copies and been translated into many languages. There have been attempts to turn it into a film but it’s stuck in development hell: John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley, all slated for the role of Ignatius, died prematurely. A 2005 Steven Soderbergh adaptation starring
Will Ferrell faced delays before it was curtailed by Hurricane Katrina. Latterly, Zach Galifianakis has been rumoured to play Ignatius.

Hollywood could focus its lens elsewhere, though. Perhaps on Toole’s own story, on how he became one of America’s most celebrated writers 12 years after he died. New Orleans certainly has the cinematic look – Katrina’s devastation has long gone, and Louisiana has overtaken California as the film production capital of the world.

Certainly more people need to know the story of Toole, and his incredible novel. The motto of the city that A Confederacy Of Dunces will forever share a kinship with aptly describes the kind of read it is: “Laissez les bon temps rouler.”

Let the good times roll.

Virgin Atlantic flies daily from Manchester to Atlanta then connects with Delta to New Orleans. Fares from £796pp; virginatlantic.com

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