Going to New Orleans after a fresh reading of A Confederacy of Dunces gives the city a different flavour, writes Margaret Eby. Every sign begins to read like a knowing wink, every passer by is an excised extra from the book. It’s in Louisiana she considers the smoothed out gaps – the biographical comb-over – of the life of its author.

John Kennedy Toole was thirty-one years old when he pulled his blue Chevy Chevelle on to a road shaded by pine trees outside of Biloxi, Mississippi, strung a green garden hose from the exhaust pipe into the back left window, locked the car, started the engine, and slowly asphyxiated himself on the poisonous cloud of carbon monoxide pumping in. Two months earlier, he had walked out on his job as a professor at Dominican College in New Orleans and skipped town abruptly after a nasty spat with his mother. The inside of the car, the deputy sheriff who discovered Toole’s body reported, was spotless, Toole’s hair neatly combed, his clothes pressed and clean. In his pocket, his mother later told interviewers, was a stub proving that one of the last stops on his journey had been to Flannery O’Connor’s house in Milledgeville, Georgia. On the passenger seat, Toole had balanced a ten-inch stack of letters, papers and notebooks on top of a black suitcase, topped by a final note to his family. What papers from this pile Toole’s mother did not get rid of were impounded by the Biloxi Police Department, and then destroyed by the floodwaters of Hurricane Camille. In Toole’s back room in New Orleans was a box containing the manuscript for the novel he had struggled over for six years, A Confederacy of Dunces.

The story of how A Confederacy of Dunces went from a collection of smeared onion-skin pages in a bedroom in Uptown New Orleans to a Pulitzer Prize-winning comic novel published eleven years after Toole’s suicide has become as integral to the book’s identity as its spluttering, bombastic main character Ignatius J. Reilly. It is as marvellously unlikely as the plot of the book itself, as the city of New Orleans in which Confederacy is set.

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A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

After Toole’s death, his mother, Thelma Toole, applied herself with relentless vigour to getting her only son’s manuscript published. Thelma was a stubborn woman with a penchant for drama. In later interviews, John Kennedy Toole’s friends described Thelma as a type who landed somewhere in the spectrum between ‘stage mom’ and ‘micromanaging parent’, though one went straight for ‘megalomaniac’. She had raised her son with a care that teetered on the edge of obsession. (One of the composition books Toole had left behind had ‘Mom, please don’t touch’ written on the cover, echoing Ignatius Reilly’s Big Chief notebooks scrawled with ‘MOTHER DO NOT READ’.) She worked as an elocution expert, coaxing students out of their thick New Orleanian accents, and was fond of rolling her rs in conversation, often sporting opera gloves, despite the thick swamp heat of southern Louisiana. She lobbed the increasingly tattered pages of the manuscript at publishing houses. Eight houses turned her down; the financial risk of a comic novel by a deceased author unable to promote, edit or otherwise help the work presumably outweighed its literary merits, and editors were no doubt put off by Thelma Toole’s impatient, repeated letters. ‘Each time I sent it off first class and it came back bulk rate,’ she later told an interviewer.

Finally, in the autumn of 1976, Thelma spotted a line in the Times-Picayune about novelist Walker Percy, who had immortalized his own corner of New Orleans in The Moviegoer and who was teaching a writing seminar at Loyola University for one semester. Thelma began pestering Percy with phone calls and entreaties to read the manuscript that Percy gently rejected. But one day after Thanksgiving, Thelma, outfitted in a pillbox hat and a thin layer of talcum powder, travelled over to Loyola with her elderly brother Arthur disguised as her chauffeur. She intercepted Percy as he was leaving his evening class, presenting him with a white box containing the torn pages of Toole’s manuscript.

‘Over the years I have become very good at getting out of things I don’t want to do,’ Percy later wrote in the introduction to Confederacy. ‘And if ever there was something I didn’t want to do, this was surely it: to deal with the mother of a dead novelist and, worst of all, to have to read a manuscript that she said was great and that, as it turned out, was a badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon.’

But Percy, out of some combination of politeness, surprise and sympathy, took the manuscript that Thelma offered, drove home and read it. In mid December he sent her a letter full of admiration for the book. ‘[Toole has] an uncanny ear for New Orleans speech and a sharp eye for place,’ Percy wrote. ‘I don’t know any novel which has captured the peculiar flavor of New Orleans neighborhoods nearly so well.’

Percy committed to help usher Confederacy into print, using his literary clout and connections to move it out of the slush pile. Louisiana State University Press published the tome in 1980, editing very little from the stack of smudged onionskin pages that Thelma had pushed on Percy. Buoyed up by the unusual circumstances behind its publication — a triangle between a dead author, an eccentric mother and a National Book Award winner made excellent copy — Confederacy got the attention of reviewers and climbed up the bestseller lists. In 1981 the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, cementing its ascent from near-garbage to literary gem.

Thelma Toole, by all accounts, had prepared for fame her whole life and spent much of Toole’s childhood priming him for greatness. When the fame at last arrived, rewarding her grief and toil, she was not humble about it. Thelma assembled an entourage of friends to squire her about town, introducing herself as ‘mother of the scholarly and literary genius John Kennedy Toole’. She gave to her friends as gifts relics from her son’s life: a pair of his nail clippers, a set of his worn bed sheets. NBC flew Thelma to New York for an interview with late-night host Tom Snyder, in which she asserted her role as a medium to bring her son’s talent into the world. ‘I walk in the world for my son,’ Thelma concluded, a line that became her mantra.

When interviewed, Thelma used the opportunity to lambast the publishing industry for her many rejections, particularly focusing her ire on storied editor Robert Gottlieb, who had corresponded with Toole about Confederacy in the early 1960s. The letters that exist between Gottlieb and Toole are full of encouragement and suggestions for revising Confederacy, though Gottlieb thought the novel needed substantial work before it could be published. Nevertheless, Thelma used her new platform to excoriate Gottlieb, not so subtly implying that the editor was responsible for the decline in mental health that drove her son to suicide. ‘Gottlieb is the villain,’ Thelma told People. To a reporter at Horizon magazine she went on an anti-Semitic screed about Gottlieb, decrying him as a ‘Jewish creature . . . not a man.’

Thelma took her tales of her son around New Orleans in a one-woman show, combining impressions of the characters in Confederacy with off-key musical numbers and stories about its author. In a video recorded at her home on Elysian Fields Avenue in 1983, Thelma, resplendent in a long rope of pearls and a lacy blue housedress, performs at a baby grand, a huge velvet curtain with ‘THELMA’ lopsidedly emblazoned on it hanging behind her. The walls are crowded with pictures of her son and posters of Confederacy-related celebrations. ‘I produced a genius,’ Thelma boasts. ‘He had the seeing eye and the hearing ear.’

Named Queen Mother of one of the Mardi Gras krewes, the social organizations that organize the annual festival parades, Thelma was infuriated when Walker Percy declined to come to her house for a knighting ceremony. To aspiring authors, Thelma’s persistence became an aspirational tale, and to New Orleanians, Thelma became a celebrity, another character in the ever-evolving carnival of the city. When she died in 1984, just four years after the book’s publication, her funeral drew a crowd of well-wishers. When her son’s body had been laid to rest in the family tomb fifteen years earlier, only three people were in attendance: his two parents and his childhood nanny.

The hoopla Thelma created, ostensibly in celebration of her son’s talents, served to propel the book into publishing mythology, but also muted the voice of its author. Toole could never contribute to the conversation, not just — and most obviously — because he died before his book entered the public sphere, but also because Thelma did her best to exert control over the narrative of his life. Thelma’s vision of her son was of a long-suffering genius, superior in every way, a dutiful son driven to his death by the cruelties of the publishing industry. It’s hard to read Thelma’s account without wishing for a different filter, one less tinted by love and longing. Very few of us are as good as our mothers want us to be. But her clipped and trimmed version of Toole’s days was the one widely disseminated; the voices of Toole’s friends and co-workers relatively quiet in comparison. Several of Toole’s closest confidantes, put off by the media hubbub over Confederacy’s publication, refused to speak about their late friend, taking whatever knowledge they had of Toole to the grave rather than join the frenzy.

Despite the dutiful work of scholars, the story of Toole’s life is full of gaps that have been unconvincingly smoothed out, a biographical comb-over. There aren’t many details of his final years, the ones in which he tangled with the stuff of his novel and ultimately abandoned it. We know only the barest outlines of what Toole was suffering from in the years before his suicide, stories that he told friends about the government implanting a device in his brain and someone stealing his manuscript and publishing it under another name. There’s also not much information about Toole’s romantic life. Toole’s early biographers, René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy, speculated that Toole’s personal life was riddled with problems. In their account, Ignatius Rising, they trot forth theories that Toole was an alcoholic, tortured by questions about his sexual orientation; a gay and closeted artist unable to cope with rejection. They interviewed a man who claimed Toole owned a boarding house where a secret harem of gay men lived, feeding the author’s promiscuous nature. This double life, they posit, may account for Toole’s scathing representation of the New Orleanian gay community in Confederacy, for those Freudian notes in Ignatius’s obsession with hot dogs. Toole’s surviving friends dismissed the book as full of sensationalism and gossip from unvetted sources that Toole was not around to refute. Cory MacLauchlin, in his Toole biography Butterfly in the Typewriter, debunked many of their claims. ‘It is tempting to fit Toole into the trope of a fatally troubled artist, his genius unrecognized, sinking into an abyss of vices,’ MacLauchlin wrote. ‘The narrative is so commonplace that we seem willing to overlook a lack of evidence to believe it.’

There’s no way to tell. Thelma, who steadfastly refused to give permission to would-be biographers until her death, preferred not to talk about the final years of Toole’s life. It’s not surprising: what grieving mother wouldn’t want to remember her son in his happier days, trussed up in costume for a Mardi Gras ball or grinning at the beach, rather than his fraught last years, plagued with anxiety and depression? The biographer’s goals and the family’s are often at odds. But Thelma’s efforts to edit the documentation she kept later frustrated scholars’ attempts to piece together a more complete version of Toole’s life. Her archival methods followed her own rationale. She kept Toole’s high-school maths homework, but there are no letters between him and his father. She destroyed Toole’s suicide letter but kept her own perfectly preserved dental bridge.

It’s hard to read Thelma’s account without wishing for a different filter, one less tinted by love and longing. Very few of us are as good as our mother want us to be.

People search for hints of Toole’s voice because they wish there were more of it. His writing is so loud and theatrical that it makes his silence even more conspicuous. A Confederacy of Dunces is a book that’s both brilliant and flawed, a romp through New Orleans so interesting that you barely mind the tour guide making fun of your shoes. Toole’s portraits of New Orleanians seem like they were spoken to you surreptitiously while sitting next to him on a bench, taking in the crowd. You can’t help but wonder what he would have written next. But Toole completists only have Confederacy and the considerably lesser Neon Bible, a novel Toole wrote when he was sixteen about a priest in Mississippi, published in the wake of Confederacy’s success. That, and we have New Orleans.

Confederacy is a book about that most unlikely of cities as much as of any of its characters, the home Ignatius compliments as ‘the comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive’. New Orleans is an easy place to write about, and a hard place to write about well. In popular culture it’s a giant kooky sports bar constantly beset by tropical storms or a swamp dotted with antebellum houses, where men in seersucker suits ignore consonants and sip frosty juleps in their alligator-riddled backyards. It’s a double-decker bus tour of the places levelled by Katrina. It’s all fan boats and ‘Who Dat’ and jambalaya, or it’s poverty and failures of government and high-velocity winds. There is little account of the place between Bourbon Street and the Lower Ninth Ward.

I’ve been using one excuse or another to visit New Orleans my whole life, drawn down by the delights of fresh, powdery beignets and a slow trickle of friends into the city. In Jackson, where my parents live, people sometimes brag about making the three-hour trek down just for a nice Friday-night dinner. The directions to get there from Mississippi are simple: follow the highway until the swamp eats it. Eventually, the ground drops out beneath the road entirely. You stop passing notices for counties and begin seeing ones for parishes; the squat warehouses filled with wholesale Mardi Gras spangles multiply; and finally the brackish expanse of Lake Pontchartrain stretches out languidly below, the shimmer of the Central Business District emerging on the horizon.

Going to New Orleans after a fresh reading of Confederacy gives the whole place a different flavour. I felt like a conspiracy theorist. Every sign began to read like a knowing wink, every passer by an excised extra from the book. As I drove in this time, pondering the eccentricities of Ignatius Reilly, I noticed a brewery sign recently rehabbed and installed on an apartment complex; its red neon letters blared falstaff at the cars scurrying down I-10. (The letters, I later learned, change colours according to the daily weather report. Green means fair weather, red is for an overcast day, flashing red and white means that a storm is approaching.) I read the sign as a bit of marginalia, a reminder of Ignatius Reilly’s roots in the long-winded Shakespearean figure. New Orleans scrolled out before me like a manuscript marked up with a sure hand, a play with the director’s notes scribbled in every street.

Toole was a native New Orleanian; his Irish-Creole background traced back to Jean-François Ducoing, a friend of the French pirate Jean Lafitte who earned praise from Andrew Jackson for his role in the Battle of New Orleans. (Thelma often went by her full name, Thelma Ducoing Toole.) Though he spent several years studying in New York, most of Toole’s life spread from Uptown, one of the oldest, most well-to-do parts of New Orleans. A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole told his friends when he was working on the manuscript, attempted to convey the texture of the place, in all its whirling, overlapping glory. ‘Irene, Reilly, Mancuso – these people say something about New Orleans,’ Toole wrote in one letter to Robert Gottlieb. ‘They’re real as individuals and also as representative of a book . . . with Ignatius as my agent, my New Orleans experiences began to fit in, one after the other, and then I was simply observing and not inventing.’

It is the last phrase that struck me the most: observing and not inventing. That observational quality is one of the most compelling, purely fun things about Confederacy: it feels like an inventive friend taking you into their confidence about the people in his office, or at her family reunion, mimicking their reactions and playing up their tics. If some fiction works by bringing the characters suffocatingly close, Confederacy works by keeping them all at arm’s length. The joy of Confederacy is in its skill for recognizing absurdity in the familiar. It is a people-watching book, a taxonomy of the species of New Orleans.

Faulkner’s New Orleans is a messy watercolour of a place, overrunning with pigment. Tennessee Williams’s New Orleans is steamy, haunted and claustrophobic, full of nervous creatures and dilapidated boarding houses; it always seems to be dusk there. The New Orleans that Toole paints in Confederacy is a different city altogether, the only place out of the three that I recognize. His New Orleans is wider, weirder, always on the move. It expands into the neighborhoods upriver, tracing the intersection of an oafish intellectual and his long-suffering henna-haired mother with a foul-mouthed Italian woman, a defeated policeman, a working-class con artist, a Bible-thumping geriatric, a crusading New York beatnik and an underpaid, sarcastic black man who wears sunglasses indoors. Toole’s characters don’t speak; they scream. City life is a constant series of tiny social conflicts and misunderstandings.

In Confederacy Toole pins down the fleeting, spontaneous communities that form in New Orleans. Round the right street corner and you’re suddenly swept up in a parade or a brawl or a funeral. You run into the same stranger repeatedly; you begin to suspect that you’re simply waiting in the wings to be introduced into a story, that any minute you could be bound together with an unlikely companion. At the beginning of Confederacy most of the characters are unacquainted with one another. By the end of the book their lives are hopelessly snarled together. Confederacy is a chain reaction of coincidences coaxed into a pattern larger and more inevitable, something like fate. Its conceit is that it is about nothing, about the many nothings of ordinary life that somehow arrange, symphony-like, into the whole of everything.

New Orleans can read as a land of inexplicable quirks. The foibles of the city are numerous and well documented: here bodies are buried above ground and the seasons are, so goes the old joke, Summer, Hurricane, Christmas and Mardi Gras. The sun rises over the West Bank. During the weeks of Carnival, emergency rooms teem with injuries suffered by overenthusiastic revellers whipping beads at breakneck speeds. Even trying to read a map in New Orleans is a translation exercise, the mixture of Spanish, French and Louisiana English commingling in unruly collisions of syllables. In Toole’s hands, the entropy makes sense, seems necessary. There is a code to the chaos, dream logic. Confederacy is often hailed for its grasp of the language of New Orleans, the flavours of dialect that Toole aptly mixed into the book. But he managed more than that. New Orleans has a grammar to it, and Toole was its most fluent practitioner.

The most obvious Confederacy of Dunces landmark in New Orleans is the statue of Ignatius J. Reilly, which is positioned outside the former D. H. Holmes department store on Canal Street. I headed there. In a town full of eye-catching things, the statue is not one of them. The D. H. Holmes is now the Hyatt French Quarter, the statue tucked underneath a voluminous purple awning. Directly above Ignatius’s bronze head hangs a black-and-white clock that completes the scene from the book, though it looks out of place near the sleek hotel doors. On the column nearby a plaque has part of the opening paragraph of Confederacy. Ignatius, resplendent in his signature green hunting cap with earflaps ‘stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once’, surveys his fellow New Orleanians:

In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress.

When Mardi Gras is in full swing, the city removes the statue to prevent the crowds from desecrating or stealing it. (The temporary absence prompted an investigation by NPR in 2012.) But as I stood there, no one paid attention to the slouched bronze figure. Tourists wielding acid-green, alien-shaped plastic cups full of frozen cocktails bubbled past on their way to browse stores stuffed with ribald T-shirts, hot sauces, souvenir cups and cured alligator heads. Shoppers marched down the block, loaded with plastic bags in primary colours. A cart on the corner of Canal and Bourbon Street seemed exclusively to sell things emblazoned with Bob Marley’s face: T-shirts, hats, bags, flags, pins. It was easy to imagine Ignatius tallying the offenses of passers by, the myriad violations against his moral standard of ‘theology and geometry’.

Sculptor William Ludwig, who completed the Ignatius bronze in 1996, based the figure on John ‘Spud’ McConnell, a local character actor famous for playing Ignatius in stage adaptations of Confederacy. The likeness is a fair one: there is the crumb-dotted moustache above a half smirk, the rumpled clothes, the shopping bag presumably filled with replacement lute strings and the slumped posture of Toole’s description. But as with every book character that looms so brightly in the imagination, it’s an inexact translation into flesh or bronze. On Yelp!, where the statue has its own profile (and a four-and-a-half-star rating), fans who recognized Ignatius complained that he isn’t quite right. ‘Docking a star because haughtiness level is just not high enough, the artist seemed to put a glimmer of compassion on his face’ one reviewer wrote. ‘He can use 80 pounds of heft also.’

True, Ignatius’s statue seemed slighter than the mammoth-bellied figure Toole described. This bronze figure did not look like the man who, when perched upon a stool, ‘looked like an eggplant balanced on a thumbtack’, who, as he waits for his mother fidgeting, ‘sent waves of flesh rippling beneath the tweed and flannel, waves that broke upon buttons and seams’. But the criticism is a tribute to how powerful a character Toole created. Ignatius is the critic incarnate, so it’s little wonder some of his attitude gets reflected back on his own statue. He is a high-minded buffoon, overeducated and under-experienced, constantly aghast at his fellow humans’ failings. He is all knowledge and no wisdom; nevertheless, his perspective is addictive. People become surreal cartoons, collections of flaws and eccentricities. While writing the book on his army base in Puerto Rico, Toole explained to Gottlieb in a letter, Ignatius began to hijack his thoughts. ‘In the unreality of my Puerto Rican experience, this book became more real to me than what was happening around me; I was beginning to talk and act like Ignatius.’

It’s not just Toole. Once you read Ignatius, you absorb him. You begin hearing his voice in your head, that sneering indignation at the oddity and incompetence of other human beings. When I first read Confederacy in high school, I found Ignatius merely amusing. When I read Confederacy after college, I recognized him. I began to see him everywhere. I saw a little of him in everyone I met, and in myself especially.

Ignatius is the critic incarnate, so it’s little wonder some of his attitude gets reflected back on his own statue. He is a high-minded buffoon, overeducated and under-experienced, constantly aghast at his fellow humans’ failings.

Toole created Ignatius in the 1960s, but there is a timeless quality to his cantankerousness. You can picture him being unhappy with any decade. He serves perfectly as a cartoon of an entitled twentysomething millennial. He still lives at home with his mother, Irene, after a lengthy period at college, where he studied medieval literature and philosophy and gained no practical skills. He is a relentless consumer – of hot dogs, of Big Chief writing tablets, of Dr Nut soda – and produces only various kinds of hot air. He strictly reads obscure philosophers and Batman comics. Ignatius is the great-granddaddy of snark. He watches movies so he can confirm that he hates them. He lives to document violations against ‘good taste and decency’. He feels these infractions bodily, through the function of his oft-mentioned ‘pyloric valve’. For Ignatius, taste is an ethical code. A movie he dislikes isn’t just a dud, it’s a moral failure. The contrast between Ignatius’s rigid rules for everyone else and his lax ones for himself is the source of several of the book’s funniest scenes, such as when Patrolman Mancuso visits Ignatius and Irene Reilly’s tiny house in the midst of Ignatius’s ranting at an American Bandstand-like television programme that showcases talented kids:

‘I would like very much to know what the Founding Fathers would say if they could see the children being debauched to further the cause of Clearasil. However, I always suspected democracy would come to this.’ He painstakingly poured the milk into his Shirley Temple mug. ‘A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of an abyss.’

In a different era, Ignatius would have been terrific at the Internet. You can picture him tucked into his Constantinople Street bedroom with an empty case of root beer at his feet, crouched over a grungy, glowing laptop, posting screeds to his blog, adding pointed and overwrought comments below news articles.

‘When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make the occasional cheese dip,’ Ignatius tells Patrolman Mancuso when asked about his profession, a statement that could also serve perfectly as a Twitter bio.

Toole’s inspiration for Ignatius was medieval scholar Robert Byrne, a friend of his from a year he spent teaching at Southwestern Louisiana Institute, two hours west of New Orleans. Byrne taught at the tiny English Department of the institute, now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and shared an office with Toole. Like Ignatius, Byrne was a hefty, moustached fellow obsessed with the philosopher Boethius and his treatise The Consolation of Philosophy, a tome that he assigned to every class he taught. The phrase ‘geometry and theology’ was one that his colleagues recall Byrne using often, usually because one thing or another lacked those qualities. Like Ignatius, Byrne loved hot dogs, wore a hunting cap with the earflaps arranged at odd angles and saw no sense in clothes that matched. In his memoir, Ken and Thelma, fellow faculty member and friend Joel Fletcher remembers Byrne appearing at the office one day in ‘three different kinds of plaid and an absurd hat’. Toole, who was fastidious in his dressing habits, was taken aback, and told Byrne that he looked ‘like the April Fool cover of Esquire’.

Anecdotes about Byrne paint him as a perfect Ignatian character. Fletcher writes about a time he was whistling while walking across campus with Byrne, who demanded to know the tune. Fletcher replied that he thought it was a Beethoven quartet’s scherzo. ‘ “I’ve always resented scherzi,” said Bobby. “They replaced the minuet, you know.” ’ A version of this exchange, which Fletcher likely relayed to Toole, appears in Confederacy when Ignatius asks if a hot-dog vendor is whistling a composition from Scarlatti. The vendor replies that the tune is ‘Turkey in the Straw’, and Ignatius seems miffed. ‘I had hoped you might be familiar with Scarlatti’s work. He was the last of the musicians . . . with your apparent musical bent, you might apply yourself to something worthwhile.’ Byrne even had the perfect response for interviewers who asked about his reaction to the success of Confederacy. When one reporter from the Washington Star asked if Byrne was bothered by his fictional likeness, you can practically hear the sneer in his voice from the reply: ‘I never read bestsellers.’

Though Byrne’s sartorial sense and verbal tics filled in the physical details of Ignatius, the character Toole created isn’t just a caricature of an old friend, it’s also a skewering bit of self-parody. For all his idiosyncrasies, Byrne was a successful teacher, content to live in a cottage near the school and practise medieval music in Lafayette. Ignatius lives at home, locked in a combative relationship with his mother, a description that much better fits Toole than Byrne. Nor were Ignatius’s money problems alien to Toole: after the tightening grip of mental illness left Toole’s father unable to support himself and Thelma, Toole kept his parents afloat financially. Ignatius reads as much a compilation of Toole’s greatest fears as a sketch of a real person. Ignatius and Toole are not the same, but his character acts as a conduit for Toole’s observations about himself, and a fun-house mirror version of an academic with aspirations that don’t match his circumstances. In Ignatius, he could express the worst of himself. ‘The book is not autobiography; neither is it altogether an invention,’ Toole wrote to Gottlieb. ‘I am not in the book; I’ve never pretended to be. But I am writing about things that I know, and in recounting these, it’s difficult not to feel them.’

From the spot below the clock at the former D. H. Holmes department store, Ignatius and his mother, Irene, round the corner to Bourbon Street to recover from a scrape with the law in a seedy bar called Night of Joy, a place that becomes a fulcrum of the freewheeling misadventures that follow. No such establishment exists, at least not exactly, but from the vantage point of the Reilly statue, you can see the spangled marquee sign for a jewel-box theatre on Canal Street. The name of the establishment is ‘Joy Theatre’ but the sign reads simply joy in bold red letters, as if it were not a suggestion of feeling but a commandment for one. The theatre was built in 1947, well in time for Toole to have taken note of the blaring letters hovering on the horizon. I took it as another note in the margins of the city and rounded the corner.

If you were blindfolded and dropped into the French Quarter, it’s possible that you could find your way on to Bourbon Street just by your nose. Despite the vigilance of the brave men and women of the New Orleans Sanitation Department, the most populated blocks of the street always smell like sugar and stomach acid. It was late afternoon, and the night’s rumpus had yet to begin. Evidence of the previous night’s partying clotted on the sidewalks. Fleur-de-lis confetti, tiny plastic animals used in cocktails and feathers dotted the gutters of the side streets, as if a horde of drunken costumed Hansels and Gretels were hoping to find their way back again. Every other door leads to a glass-fronted daiquiri counter, touting an electric palette of frozen, saccharine cocktails, served from constantly whirling machines into huge Styrofoam cups. Groups of tourists in matching colourful T-shirts floated from doorway to doorway like schools of tropical fish. Above, on wrought-iron balconies, bored-looking men in football jerseys held fistfuls of cheap beads, waiting for an adequate target. At one corner a group of equally bored-looking evangelicals held signs asking passers by about their relationship with Jesus. It was, in short, excellent people-watching. As Ignatius says when his mother tries to pry him loose from their place at Night of Joy: ‘We must stay to watch the corruption. It’s already beginning to set in.’

Despite the vigilance of the brave men and women of the New Orleans Sanitation Department, the most populated blocks of the street always smell like sugar and stomach acid.

Confederacy is in part a satire of Bourbon Street. It’s unlikely that any of the places I walked by literally had an act with a faux Southern belle being undressed by a cockatoo, but an animal act didn’t seem far-fetched, nor did a scheming owner with a policy of watering down the drinks. The exaggerated Southern-ness that Darlene can’t quite nail in her act is a big selling point on Bourbon Street. ‘Come on in, y’all,’ a man beckoned to me, pointing to a sign for ‘The Swamp Thing’, a mechanical bull painted green. ‘Laissez those bon temps right here.’

As I stood tucked into the sidewalk, scribbling notes, an older woman with a perfect blonde bouffant and frosted pink lipstick began speaking at me through a headpiece microphone. She wore a name-tag that read Marion Lightfoot and a khaki shirt.

‘Where you from?’ she asked, pursing her lips. I began to explain my Confederacy mission and she cut me off. ‘Well, that’s fine, but I’m going to have to issue you a ticket.’ She squinted at a saffron-coloured notebook and checked off several offenses before handing me the slip with a flourish. The ticket had a tiny ClipArt illustration of an upset policeman under the banner ‘Party Pooper Award’. My infractions included ‘Not Partying Hard Enough’ and ‘Being Too Serious’, as well as ‘Guy/Girl Watching’ and ‘Being Too Good-Looking.’ When I looked up, she offered a khaki visor from her bag with Bourbon Street embroidered on the front and began to solicit a donation for a charity organization. ‘No thanks,’ I said, finally catching on. Her smile contracted. ‘Just hold this, cupcake,’ she snapped. ‘It’s part of the skit.’ I complied. She finished her spiel and then whipped around to begin the script again. ‘Where you from? Wichita?’ I heard as I scuttled away down Bourbon Street.

In my haste to escape, I almost missed the next stop on my Ignatius tour. There was no address for this one, but I had been assured that it would not be difficult to find, particularly along the tourist corridor parts of the city. I scanned the sidewalks for a distinctive red-and-white-striped uniform, feeling a bit like I had been plunged into Where’s Waldo? But, finally, I spotted what I was looking for. There on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse, sheltered under a bright red-and-white Coca-Cola umbrella, shone a seven-foot-long steel frankfurter with Lucky Dogs emblazoned on top of the bun and wheels attached to the bottom. A red attachment on top advertises the short menu: Lucky Dog, Regular Hot Dog or Smoked Sausage. I had found a Lucky Dogs cart.

Lucky Dogs is a French Quarter fast-food staple, a beacon to those straggling home from the bars in search of sustenance or peckish while perusing the antique stores on Royal Street. It’s the model for Paradise Vendors, the company that employs Ignatius as a lacklustre hot-dog hawker in the second half of Confederacy. Lucky Dogs has a lock on the New Orleans hot-dog market, thanks to a 1972 law that prevents pushcarts from operating in the Vieux Carré unless they had established themselves at least eight years prior. Lucky Dogs had been crawling through the Quarter since 1948, so the law effectively ensured a monopoly for the company. But the carts are more than a well-known stop for a five-minute dinner; they’ve also entered New Orleans iconography, thanks partly to Confederacy. Former Lucky Dogs manager Jerry Strahan wrote an amusing memoir of his twenty years employing a group of drunks, swindlers, misanthropes and other outsized characters who worked as his hot-dog vendors; in honour of his famous fictional employee, Strahan entitled the book Managing Ignatius. ‘Our crew is still made up of the same sorts of eccentric individuals that Toole must have met,’ Strahan writes in the introduction. ‘I had considered calling it A Hundred and One People I Wish I Had Never Met, but I couldn’t narrow down the list.’

Painters in Jackson Square offer watercolours of the carts, and the company sells ties, visors and Christmas ornaments emblazoned with the Lucky Dogs logo. Drinking stories about New Orleans often end with the apocryphal tale of some hooligan riding on top of the cart when the vendors push them back to the garage around four a.m. Some couples rent out the carts to cater for their wedding receptions. (The minimum package for catering, three hundred hot dogs with all the fittings, starts at $747.) There is a Lucky Dogs stand at the airport, and one appeared briefly in Disneyland Paris. Even at the time Toole wrote Confederacy the carts were everywhere, and had a reputation for being manned by colourful characters, the sort who would rather not report in to an office job. The one I stood in front of was doing brisk business despite the early hour, handing out wienies to a line of dudes in baseball caps and knock-off Oakleys. I got in line.

Confederacy might have bumped up the Lucky Dogs image, but it doesn’t really celebrate the carts’ gastronomic offerings. Ignatius gets hooked into selling wienies after he stumbles upon the cart garage and notices ‘the distinct odours of hot dog, mustard and lubricant’. When Ignatius asks the ingredients of the meaty treats that ‘swished and lashed like artificially coloured and magnified paramecia’ in the pot of boiling water, his boss-to-be, Mr Clyde, replies, ‘Rubber, cereal, tripe. Who knows? I wouldn’t touch one of them myself.’ Not exactly appetizing, but it doesn’t deter Ignatius. He eats four in a row after that.

Ignatius makes a miserable hot-dog salesman. He refuses to sell hot dogs to customers who violate his standard of geometry, eats most of his wares himself and then lies to Clyde about being robbed. Instead of pushing the cart around well-trafficked areas, he parks out of the way and jots notes on Marco Polo. ‘The wagon is a terrible liability,’ Ignatius writes in his journal. ‘I feel like a hen sitting on a particularly large tin egg.’ He attempts to trap a stray cat and put her in the bun compartment of the cart to keep as a pet. He wheels it to a society ladies’ art showing on Pirate’s Alley – the narrow street behind St Louis Cathedral where Faulkner once lived – to mock their paintings. During all these antics, Ignatius sports the vendor’s uniform that ‘made him look like a dinosaur egg about to hatch’, later jazzed up at Mr Clyde’s insistence with the addition of a plastic pirate’s cutlass, a red sateen bandanna tied around the hunting cap and a clip-on gold earring. He attaches a sign to the front of the cart that reads, in crayon, ‘Twelve inches (12″) of paradise,’ which is inevitably vandalized with sketches of ‘a variety of genitals’. He abandons the cart to go and watch movies in the middle of the day and ultimately uses the wagon’s warming compartment to smuggle pornography.

Toole had first-hand experience in the hot-dog-selling game. While studying at Tulane, he sold wienies at football games to earn an allowance. In Ignatius Rising, the authors cite a musician friend of Toole’s, Sidney Snow, who used to push a Fiesta Hot Tamale cart around the French Quarter. Toole would take over Snow’s route at a pinch. But even without years spent pushing around a wagon of wienies, it’s easy to see why Toole would choose that occupation for Ignatius. It’s a great vantage point for making observations about the city, as integral to New Orleans as the taxi driver is to New York City. It’s the perfect spot at the edge of the ceaseless parade.

I paid him for the hot dog and furtively checked the bun compartment for porn or kittens. It harboured neither.

I stood in line watching the vendor spear the pink sausages and present them to customers on pillowy buns, smothered in chili and relish and cheese. He used the universal utensil of the hot-dog vendor, the telescoping two-pronged tiny fork, the same kind Ignatius uses to flip dogs out of boiling water, and the same kind that his manager used to threaten Ignatius’s Adam’s apple when the lumbering medievalist eats most of the day’s profits. He was wearing the trademark red-and-white striped smock, topped by a lace-patterned fedora. He had grey, wispy hair and was missing his two front teeth. His name, I learned, was Jerry. I ordered a Lucky Dog with onions and asked if he had ever read Confederacy. ‘People ask me that all the time,’ he replied good-naturedly, squirting ketchup on the hot dog as he spoke. ‘But nope, I sure haven’t. The library seems to always be out of copies.’ I paid him for the hot dog and furtively checked the bun compartment for porn or kittens. It harboured neither.

I had reached my Bourbon Street saturation point, so I moseyed off to my next stop, munching the hot dog happily. My destination was in the Bywater, a pleasant ways away from the clang and churn of the Quarter. On my way out of the Vieux Carré I swung by Napoleon House, once offered by the mayor of New Orleans to the French leader as a refuge, later a favourite spot for Toole to drink with his friends, and now a famous Creole restaurant. I walked down Pirate’s Alley, where Ignatius crashed that art show, past St Louis Cathedral, where Patrolman Mancuso had sought shelter. Outside the cathedral, in the wide promenade that circles Jackson Square, another Lucky Dogs vendor pushed his cart past palm-readers, voodoo wannabes and human statues. A sousaphone player entertained the line of people outside Café du Monde, where tables of people merrily sipped chicory coffee and ruined their clothes with clouds of powdered sugar wafting from hot beignets. I walked east past Frenchman Street, past a twenty- four-hour combination bar and laundromat, past vintage stores that displayed enormous feathered Mardi Gras headdresses, past a man in a camper chair selling gumbo from a bubbling pot beside his feet. Music from brass bands curled around the corners, beckon- ing. Further east, into the Bywater, I ran into a rolling bank of fog and emerged outside the compound of folk artist Dr Bob, whose paintings of cultural icons, decorated with bottle caps, instruct would-be visitors to ‘Be Nice or Leave’, as well as ‘Who Dat or Leave’. I turned up Dauphine Street and hit upon the Bywater art lofts.

The lofts are in the former J. H. Rutter Rex Manufacturing Building, the place Toole probably used as inspiration for the Levy Pants factory. Toole based his portrait of the slowly dying Levy Pants on his time working part-time for Haspel Brothers, a clothing company famous for its seersucker suits. (A pay stub for a week’s work, $40, is among the papers Thelma kept.) Toole worked there after graduating from Tulane at the age of twenty, thanks to skipping two grades in elementary school. His boss was the son-in-law of one of the Haspel brothers, and no doubt some of his observations from the situation later drifted into Confederacy’s description of the hapless Mr Levy and his exercise-board-addicted wife. Before his stint as a hot-dog seller, Ignatius works at Levy Pants briefly, until he gets fired for an attempt to foment a revolution among the factory workers, a campaign that he describes as a ‘Crusade for Moorish Dignity’. He charms the senile Miss Trixie with athletic socks and lunch meat, throws away the filing he’s supposed to do and instead builds a detailed cross. Toole describes the building as ‘two structures fused into one macabre unit,’ a sickly thing in the corner of the neighbourhood. ‘Alongside the neat grey wharf sheds that lined the river and canal across the railroad tracks, Levy Pants huddles, a silent and smoky plea for urban renewal.’

Renewal had come, but not at the behest of any smoky plea. The Bywater was one of the few neighbourhoods left relatively intact after the devastation of Katrina, part of the ‘sliver by the river’ protected by a natural levee. The sudden influx of people into the neighborhood coupled with the lack of housing stock made the once-abandoned factory look more appealing than Toole might have seen it. A group of investors converted the space into apartments for lower-income artists. The former factory, trimmed in primary colours, now had various watercolour projects stuck into the windows to dry, giving it the appearance of an upscale elementary school. A few lanky men in T-shirts smoked cigarettes outside the door and spoke in low tones.

The epicentre of Confederacy is in the French Quarter, but except for this brief foray east, the rest of the book moves west up the crescent of the Mississippi River. Constantinople Street, where Toole places the ramshackle house in which Ignatius and his mother lived, is in Touro, in the Twelfth Ward, a streetcar ride away on the St Charles line. Toole paints the area as a claustrophobic, working-class one, where you can hear your neighbours through the walls and humid nights draw people out on to their porches. It’s the kind of place where nosy homebodies write anonymous letters to one another, sniping about untoward behaviour. The Reilly home, Toole writes, was the tiniest one on a block of houses ‘that dripped carving and scrollwork, Boss Tweed suburban stereotypes separated by alleys so narrow that a yardstick could almost bridge them.’ The Reillys’ yard is bare except for a frozen banana tree and a leaning cross-built on the burial spot of the family dog Rex.

I walked down Constantinople from St Charles, down from the pine-green streetcars that undulated away from the avenue, past the wizened trees that filtered the watery sunlight. In Confederacy, Patrolman Mancuso ‘inhaled the mouldy scent of the oaks and thought, in a romantic aside, that St Charles Avenue must be the loveliest place on earth.’ Though Toole lived farther Uptown, I always thought of that line as a little love note to his home slipped among the pages. It’s an easy sentiment to feel on a warm day, something about the rich arboreal aroma, the green-gold shade painting the sidewalk. On the corner of Magazine Street, a pop-up bakery was selling king cake, the scent of baking cinnamon-sugar dough wafting out from the ventilation system. Towards the river, on the southern blocks of Constantinople where the Reillys’ home would have been, little shotgun houses in pastel colours lined the block like Easter eggs in their carton. In one of these, perhaps the one with slanted shutters and a striped awning, or the one with a crumpled front gate, Ignatius could have been upstairs bellowing ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ to the distress of his neighbours, Irene Reilly hiding her muscatel in the oven.

Constantinople Street had shifted since Toole had seen it last, weathered almost half a century, a storm and an ensuing wave of construction. At first I couldn’t figure out what bothered me about the difference between the place as it stands and the one in Confederacy. And then I realized: it’s too quiet. No chatters or cackles leaked from the houses, no gossip or complaints echoed through the slim alleyways. What I was missing was the voices, the fretful ‘Al Smith Inflection’ of Irene’s y’at accent, that linguistic anomaly that appears simultaneously in deep New Orleans and deep Brooklyn. I had been straining my ears for Ignatius’s bellows, Irene’s sighs, the slangy endearments of her friend Santa Battaglia. Toole so deftly populated the street with their clamour that I had half expected to be able to eavesdrop on them.

Constantinople Street is not far from the Prytania Theatre, the movie temple Ignatius frequented to better understand the failings of Hollywood. Irene and Santa walked there through the fictional parish of St Odo to see a Debbie Reynolds movie, through the summertime ‘cacophony of dropping pots, booming television sets, arguing voices, screaming children and slamming doors’. Ignatius was even conceived thanks to the Prytania, after Irene and Mr Reilly had gone there on a date to see the Clark Gable romance Red Dust. ‘Poor Mr Reilly,’ Toole wrote. ‘He had never gone to another movie as long as he lived.’ The Prytania Theatre of the 1960s was a neighbourhood single-screen palace bedecked with a columned entrance and a grand marquee. The one that I visited was a squat, red-brick block with a blue cursive ‘Prytania’ sign on the upper-right corner of the building, as if a giant had casually autographed the place. The lobby, a pamphlet under the box office assured, had recently undergone extensive renovations. Iced coffee was now available alongside the usual shrink-wrapped boxes of Sno-Caps and bags of buttered popcorn.

Ignatius visited the Prytania religiously to hate-watch whatever they offered, his paunch spilling out over the armrests, an array of snacks occupying the seat next to him. Toole was an avid moviegoer, and some element of Ignatius’s behaviour might have been culled from his own audience pet peeves. (Some, too, must have been self-parody. In Butterfly in the Typewriter, one friend remembers Toole interrupting a couple snickering at the folly of Southerners during a screening of Birth of a Nation in order to lecture them about the finer points of Reconstruction.) He paints Ignatius as the worst kind of movie watcher, the obnoxious scream-at-the-screen kind, the one who is quickest to remind you of the special effects and to spoil the ending. He examines the close-up faces of actors for scars and cavities, he yells in the kissing scenes about the probability of halitosis. In his journal, Ignatius proclaims that he seeks refuge there to ogle ‘Technicoloured horrors, filmed abortions that were offences against any criteria of taste and decency, reels and reels of perversion and blasphemy that stunned my disbelieving eyes, that shocked my virginal mind, and sealed my valve.’ But, of course, that’s the joke. Ignatius isn’t interested in the potential of the cinema as an art form; in fact, he shies away from one film he suspects might be good. He’s there to bolster his world view by puncturing the illusions of other moviegoers, to confirm his rightness.

At first I couldn’t figure out what bothered me about the difference between the place as it stands and the one in Confederacy. And then I realized: it’s too quiet

The punchline here is the same one in the book’s title, which Toole took from Jonathan Swift: ‘When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.’ Ignatius sees nothing but stupidity around him; he thinks of himself as an infiltrator at the party, scoffing at the small talk. But to the reader, he’s clearly just as much a participant in the confederacy as any of the other characters. The loftiness of his perspective is a farce. And as you snicker at Ignatius, you begin to suspect that your own perspective is equally skewed. Confederacy is a book about the impossibility of just watching. There’s no such thing as an innocent onlooker, as someone who’s just a member of the audience. It’s a book that makes you conscious of life’s general absurdity, the ridiculous things we do that pass for pragmatism. We are all confederates in the duncedom.

From the Prytania, I drove farther uptown to poke around the neighbourhood in which Toole lived for most of his life. Thelma and Toole’s father, John, a nervous car salesman, moved to the edge of the affluent neighbourhood shortly after Toole was born. Thelma positioned the family there in order to enter into the competitive social games of high-society New Orleans, to distance herself from her downtown up-bringing. The family moved from house to house, clinging to the neighbourhood even when it was no longer financially practical. In later years, Toole paid his parents’ rent on their Uptown apartments, setting aside a portion of his wages from the Army to prop up their place in the neighbourhood. The last place he lived in New Orleans was there, a house on the corner of Hampson Street, not far from his job teaching at the all-girls Dominican College.

On my way to see it, the houses begin to widen and grow taller. The leafiness intensifies. The hues are muted creams, mossy greens, barely-there pinks, as if the neon colours of the French Quarter had washed, diluted, upriver. The house Toole lived in last is now sea-foam green with neat white trim, hemmed in by a row of hedges and a wrought-iron fence. A cheery flag with autumn leaves waves by the door. An attic window peers out from the roof like a periscope. Near the gate, a tasteful plaque marks the home as the Toole-Hecker House, in deference to the family that built the place in 1885 and its most famous tenants. At the corner outside the house is where Toole had his final argument with Thelma before rocketing away in his car, destined eventually for that pecan grove outside of Biloxi.

Within the pages of Confederacy, it’s easy to picture the Toole his friends described, the one who impressed girls with his dance skills and quaffed cocktails in the Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Bar, the gifted mimic and notorious cheapskate, the Marilyn Monroe obsessive and sharp dresser. It’s harder to imagine him after the party was done. I couldn’t conjure up the Toole who lived here, the dedicated teacher slowly unravelling in the stuffiness of his family home. Bobby Byrne, the model for Ignatius, described his friend as ‘extroverted and private’, that most heady and paradoxical of combinations. He was a shapeshifter, as we all are. To his mother he was a doting genius, to his acquaintances a real card, to his readers an unsung literary hero. He even has different names to go with those different identities: ‘Ken’ for his Louisiana friends, ‘John’ for his New York buddies, ‘Kenny’ to Thelma and the full-bore ‘John Kennedy Toole’ for the rest of us. Here, at the spot where Toole lived in his last days, was where I felt most acutely how little information there was about Toole’s personal life. His warm, witty voice in Confederacy brings him so close that it’s jarring to realize you know nothing about him, that you are strangers still.

My final stop was the point on the map farthest from the Ignatius statue, an outlier on the arc from the French Quarter to the Toole home Uptown. Toole’s remains, once collected from his car in Biloxi, were interred in the Ducoing grave in Greenwood Cemetery, up the expressway towards Pontchartrain, near City Park. New Orleans is famous for its cemeteries, the deceased interred in above-ground vaults thanks to the high water table and Spanish tradition. They are popularly referred to as cities of the dead, thanks partially to a half-admiring, half-horrified observation Mark Twain made about their architecture in Life on the Mississippi. Greenwood Cemetery is a suburb of the dead. The graves are plotted in neat rows on streets named after flowers and fruit: Tulip, Evergreen, Lily, Magnolia, Lemon. A man on a riding lawnmower neatened the edges of the grassy avenues.

I went into the office of the funeral home for help with directions, and met a father-son pair of undertakers. A brochure on the father’s desk showed the cemetery’s monument to the Fireman’s Charitable Association, and, in bold, ‘Always Prestigious, Still Affordable’. I told him about my mission and he brought up Toole’s name on his computer screen. ‘Sure, in the Ducoing tomb. He’s buried two down from my mom and daddy.’ He pointed, highlighting the spot on a map. He paused and looked up from the screen slyly. ‘That fella sure was a dunce, huh?’

The grave was on Latanier Avenue, a classy marble number with a cross above. Toole’s name was sixth on the list of the buried, two above his mother’s. The stone vases with Ducoing inscribed on them were empty. I plucked a clover that the riding lawnmower had spared and placed it on the stone.

When an author commits suicide, there’s an urge to look back through his fiction for signs of trouble, for hints as to how his life will end. Toole left very few of those in Confederacy. His book is scathing, even sneering, but at the centre of it is a sense of glee. I come away from its pages marvelling at the weirdness around me, at the masquerade, rather than depressed by it. Even Ignatius, faced with his mother’s threats to commit him to the mental hospital, gets a happy ending courtesy of his beatnik quasi ex-girlfriend, that ‘musky minx’ Myrna Minkoff. She appears at his doorstep just before the ambulance from Charity Hospital does, and the two of them, loaded with Ignatius’s lute and loose-leaf papers, head to New York:

Myrna prodded and shifted the Renault through the city traffic masterfully, weaving in and out of impossibly narrow lanes until they were clear of the last twinkling streetlight of the last swampy suburb. Then they were in darkness in the centre of the salt marshes. Ignatius looked out at the highway marker that reflected their headlights. US 11. The marker flew past. He rolled down the window an inch or two and breathed the salt air blowing in over the marshes from the Gulf. As if the air was a purgative, his valve opened. He breathed again, this time more deeply. The dull headache was lifting.

The party doesn’t end, it just moves. I wished that Toole’s life could have had a similar deus ex machina, a journey that ended somewhere other than that lonely Biloxi highway.