An experience for incoming freshmen

Ignatius J. Reilly, one of New Orleans’ most celebrated fictional citizens, seems to have puzzled some Loyola University freshmen this fall, but maybe they’ll appreciate him in time.

Judging by comments made during one discussion of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces during Loyola’s fall orientation, many didn’t quite “get” why the novel won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 and a place in the hearts of so many New Orleanians. Their lukewarm response isn’t surprising; after all, Ignatius is a belching, flatulent, ranting misfit who causes a great deal of trouble, the kind of social deviant kids and teenagers are taught so assiduously not to become.

“He treats his mother badly,” one freshman said. “He’s rude,” said another. “He’s a bum,” offered a third.

Even one of the professors leading the discussion called him “difficult,” “selfish” and “self-centered.”

“I had difficulty finishing the book because I was just about fed up with Mr. Reilly,” said Tom Martenstein, of Fairhope, Ala., an upperclassman and orientation guide.

It is easy to understand why. Early on, readers get a heavy dose of Ignatius’ verbose contentiousness when he brazenly resists a police officer’s questions by saying, “This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs and lesbians, all of whom are only too well protected by graft. If you have a moment, I shall endeavor to discuss the crime problem with you, but don’t make the mistake of bothering me.”

Such a diatribe might not have offended many people in the 1960s when much of the book was written, but on a college campus in 2010, it could be considered – as one faculty member put it – politically incorrect.

 So why did Loyola send 800 copies of this novel to incoming freshmen?

“We chose it because we believed it was a way to introduce our students to the simplicity and the complexity of New Orleans culture,” said Roberta Kaskel, director of career development.

With its cast of over-the-top characters such as Ignatius’ maroon-haired, muscatel drinking mother Irene, and her interfering friend Santa Battaglia, “yat” talk abounds with people “axing” questions and “berling erysters’ and telling tales about their “mommas.” It captures a segment of New Orleans’ immigrant culture that’s rapidly disappearing.    

Loyola celebrated the novel’s 30th year of publication by encouraging freshmen to read it, discuss it and take a tour of some of the sites in the novel. Buses took them to the Canal Street statue of Ignatius that stands on the spot where, in the opening scene, clever Irene saves her 30-year-old son from arrest in front of the former D.H. Holmes department store. He is wearing a green hunting cap on his “fleshy balloon of a head” and his “supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock.”

Ignatius’ employment as a French Quarter hot dog vender also put Lucky Dogs, now a famous street vendor, on the orientation day menu. But when this wienie offering was hyped at one of the classroom discussion groups, one unimpressed newcomer squashed the moment by muttering, “It’s only a hot dog.”

“Only a hot dog! Oh, no, the Lucky Dog is an icon!” many a fan would counter. But maybe one has to love New Orleans to understand.

Victoria Tecchie, a graduate of Riverdale High School in Kenner, was one of the few students in a discussion group of 13 who found the novel more entertaining than offensive.

“I loved the book,” Tecchie said. “I’m from New Orleans. I could picture it in my head, so it was probably easier for me to enjoy it.”

“Some people find Ignatius disgusting,” she said. “But he doesn’t care what people think about him. He did what he wanted.”

In fact, it’s Ignatius’ contentment with doing nothing for five years except to produce six paragraphs of prose a month for a “sociological fantasy” that makes him appealing to those who understand him. As a nihilist, he doesn’t believe in striving for anything, especially to meet society’s expectations. Society is morally corrupt; life is meaningless, so why bother with bothering, is his worldview. It is a view that he seems to have adopted in his youth after his beloved dog died and no one, including his mother, understood his grief.

New Orleans is the only place in America that a person such as Ignatius could live without much hassle. Judith Hunt, assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Natural Sciences and coordinator of the summer reading program, underscored this local trait when she told students, “You live in a place where you can wear your chicken hat” and be accepted.

Loyola’s selection of this masterpiece of characterization and subversive thought was natural considering that the book’s difficult road to publication started on the college’s campus in 1976. Thelma Toole, the author’s mother, hounded novelist Walker Percy, who was teaching at Loyola at the time, until he agreed to read it.

With Percy’s help, it became a literary sensation that sold more than 1 million copies. Its success, however, only made the suicide of its author in 1969 even more tragic. Today, with Toole’s own story well known, his ghost shadows every page.

Writers detest having their fictional characters read as autobiography, but the parallels between Toole and Ignatius are too tight to ignore. Both hailed from New Orleans, and Toole was about the same age as his creation when he died at age 31. They had similar educations, similar flamboyant mothers and similar aspirations. Mother conflict sent Toole on a road trip away from home, just as Ignatius flees New Orleans to escape his mother’s actions.

Most striking is Ignatius’ “sociological fantasy” project, a good description for Toole’s satire. Confederacy of Dunces skewers all segments of society with a wit so piercing and often somewhat true, it’s a hilarious antidote to the pressures of conventional living. It even includes the chilling prophecy by Ignatius that if his mother took control of his “jottings” that she could “make a fortune from them.” His belief that his work also has “film possibilities” comes across as Ignatius’ usual egomania, but many years after the words were written, Toole’s novel was in the planning stages of filming several times.

Ignatius’ primary role may have been to provide Toole a safe mask from which he could poke fun at anybody he chose. Ignatius is a genius who pirouettes on the edges of society and sanity and somehow gets away with it. You gotta love him for that.