Sunday, August 10, 2008

 

Ignatius J. Reilly


"Ignatius Rising", by René Pol Nevils & Deborah George Hardy, is a biography - no that's not really it, it's more an investigation into the origins of my favorite book of all time, "Confederacy of Dunces", by John Kennedy Toole. Nevils & Hardy start out examining the life of the author, and then recount the remarkable efforts of his unusual mother to get this book published after his sad demise in 1969.

Ken, as he was known to friends and family, created a most bizarre assortment of characters that portray the underbelly of New Orleans with a deadly accuracy unmatched before or since. A tormented misfit like his protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, Ken was the product [victim] of an amazingly dysfunctional family [mother]. His characters are undoubtedly a twisted reflection/refraction of his own life and family, as well as his keen evaluations of the people he encountered and observed around him. He wrote "Confederacy..." in the early 1960s, and even though his manuscript garnered immediate attention by a major New York publishing house - by Joseph Heller's publisher no-less - he could not come to an agreement with them over their suggested revisions and ended up abandoning his manuscript in a box on top of his chifarobe [closet]. Toole never could find his way in life, and, saddled with an unbelievable demands of his increasingly demented mother, he ended up committing suicide in early 1969 at the age of 31.

His mother, Thelma, then made it her life's mission to get her son's book published, and eventually managed to attract the attention of renowned author, Walker Percy, who became its biggest fan. After 11 years of persistence, browbeating, cajoling, and an intensity of purpose by Thelma that no one could easily avoid, the book was finally published in 1980 by the Louisiana State University Press. An immediate best-seller, it won the Pulitzer prize for literature in 1981, and continues to earn significant royalties for its publisher even now.

I grew up in Baton Rouge, and spent my college years in New Orleans in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The novel's protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, was a composition of many "types" - locally known as "yats", from their greeting: "whe' y'at, muddah?" - that I encountered throughout the side-streets and back-alleys of uptown New Orleans - bloated, often-unwashed, bizarre, egotistical, boorish, arrogant, overbearing, loud, obnoxious, imperious, rude, outrageous, pathetic, often quite hilarious, and totally oblivious of their effect on others around them. I often went to the Prytania Theater on Thursday nights - one of the few theaters in town that showed "art-flicks" (the rest of the week they showed porn). I'm convinced Ignatius - or someone like him - was often perched in the middle row, surrounded by tubs of popcorn and drinks, hollering obscenities at the screen, loudly berating the director for every lame plot contrivance, ridiculing every continuity lapse. I also saw him - or someone like him - carelessly navigating a hot-dog cart through the alleys and sidewalks of the French Quarter, accosting the tourists and calling out to the locals sitting in the doorways of the various clubs and bars lining both sides of the streets.

Growing up in the heart of "uptown" New Orleans, Ken attended Tulane University and got his Master's degree at Columbia University, then taught English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette. This was followed by a two-year stint as an English-language instructor for new army recruits in Puerto Rico, where he began working on his manuscript. Upon his release he taught for many years at an all-girls high school on St. Charles Avenue, where he became their most popular and entertaining teacher due to his biting, sarcastic wit and hilarious caricatures. During this period, he finished his novel and spent a few years trying to get it published. Failing at that, he began spiraling downward and at some point he crossed over the edge into madness. He began to frighten his students with his rantings and ravings, and was eventually fired.

Then, in the fall of 1968 Ken enrolled as a doctoral student in the English Department at Tulane University. I entered Tulane as a freshman that same fall semester of 1968. I took the mandatory Freshman English Literature course (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays(!) from 9 am to 10 am). I would like to believe that as I dragged myself through those dimly lit hallways and stairwells of that ancient building during that semester, at least once I might have crossed paths with Ken Toole. By this time, he was drinking heavily and constantly mumbling to himself, blaming the world for all his misfortunes. I imagine that at best he would have ignored my lowly presence and at worst snarled some incomprehensible insult and demanded that I remove myself from his path. Who knows?

Ken Toole disappeared in early January 1969, apparently taking a road-trip across the country. His body was found in late March of that year sitting behind the wheel of his locked car off a dirt road in Biloxi, Mississippi, a hose running from the tailpipe into his rolled-up window.

When I first read "Confederacy of Dunces" in 1981, I knew immediately - within pages - that I was reading a masterpiece. I have never read anything like it - it is still my favorite book of all time. I don't really understand why I was so attracted to it, other than my own personal experiences in that same time and locale. Maybe I see a bit of myself in Ignatius, although I think I've successfully managed to keep that part generally at bay [except when I have to suffer through a poorly written or poorly made TV show or movie - thanks, Ken, for those epithets :) ]. Too, reading his exploits appealed to a certain reckless side of me. But also, I think maybe it's certain resemblances between Ignatius' mother [and Ken's] and mine...

The book was published with a forward by Walker Percy that [rather kindly] describes the remarkable efforts by Thelma to get the book published. Percy did refer to Ken's suicide, but without the context of his whole life story, it comes across as just another interesting fact. Nevils and Hardy have painted a fascinating portrait of this sad and tormented man, and by the time they've described how Thelma treated anyone who got in her way, it is not hard to understand the intense pressures that eventually drove Toole to take his own life.

I rarely read any book more than once - but I've probably read "Confederacy..." at least half a dozen times by now. I suspect that the next time I read it, I'll approach it from a new, somewhat sadder perspective, knowing so much more about its author and his time.

Comments:
My local newspaper had an article about authors today. You must be linked to the collective unconscious.

The back stories are the best stories. Tue, Aug. 12, 2008
- BY AUDRA D.S. BURCH
aburch@MiamiHerald.com

Former journalist Peggy Marsh had been quietly working on her novel for more than a decade when she was discovered by a publisher who was scouring the South for new authors. Starring a heroine named Pansy O'Hara, Marsh's manuscript was a theatrical, longing ode to the lost, pre-Civil War era in the Deep South. Its working title: Tomorrow Is Another Day.

By the time the novel was published a year later, in 1936, Pansy had become Scarlett, and Marsh had reverted to her maiden name, Margaret Mitchell. And her title famously had been transformed into the more poignant Gone With The Wind.

This is just one of the literary morsels offered in Who the Hell Is Pansy O'Hara? (Penguin, $13 in paper), a compilation of the little-known back stories behind 50 of the world's most famous books.

''When you understand the book's history or something about the author or what influenced his or her work, you can't help but have a finer appreciation for the book, for the art work,'' Chris Sheedy, the Australian who wrote Who the Hell . . . with his wife, Jenny Bond, says from their home in Sydney. ``We were looking for wonderful pieces of information that told us something more.''

So Bond and Sheedy set out to write a book about books, to unveil shadowed truths by journeying through the authors' minds, lives, loves and inspirations. A broader knowledge of an author, they say, makes for a richer reading experience.

Among the works they investigated: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle; For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss; Mario Puzo's The Godfather; Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling.

The book's fiction section spans almost two centuries, from Pride and Prejudice (1813) to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003). The nonfiction section includes The English Dictionary by Samuel Johnson (1755), All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (1974) and Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (1988).

Readers learn that, once its pages were stacked, Mitchell's manuscript towered almost five feet -- taller than she -- and that she had hidden parts of it under the carpet; that Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was rejected by every publisher to which it was originally sent; that for her Bridget Jones's Diary -- conceived as a column chronicling the experiences of a 30-something single woman in London -- Helen Fielding used Pride and Prejudice as a template. Readers also learn that Ian Fleming, author of Casino Royale, was part of the team that cracked the Nazis' Enigma Code and that 20,000 readers canceled their subscriptions to The Strand mystery magazine after Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in order to concentrate on more serious writing projects. He was later forced to revive the character for The Hound of the Baskervilles but set the story prior to the detective's death.

Bond and Sheedy, 37-year-old freelance journalists who have been married for 13 years, came up with the idea during a literary conversation over dinner. In some ways, the project was a natural. Bond had once taught high-school English and drama, and Sheedy, a former vice president of Guinness World Records, keenly appreciated the reading public's appetite for trivia.

So for 18 months of evenings and weekends -- son Sam was born halfway through -- the couple began whittling down a list of dozens of contenders, then visited libraries, studied academic papers and pored over the Internet in search of obscure and quirky facts. ''We would have dinner with friends and argue about what books should make the cut,'' Sheedy says. ``The list changed many times.''

Bond still remembers introducing her students to her favorite book, Emma, and how they had been moved by the story-behind-the-story Bond had pieced together about Austen's family tragedies, which included a handicapped brother sent away to live with another family, another brother adopted and an aunt wrongly imprisoned for theft.

''The realization was for me that once they came to know Jane Austen's back story, they began to discuss the reasons that Austen put her characters in certain situations and the reasons that characters reacted certain ways,'' Bond says. ``The students looked deeper into the book as a work of art created by a specific and special person.''
 
Your post and the sad story of the Dunces author reminds me of a great documentary I'm sure you've seen -- The Stone Reader. It tells the story of a documentarian attempting to track down the nearly forgotten author of a book called "Stones of Summer." What interested me the most was not what happened to that author, but the stories told by people all along the way, about how much books and reading inspired them.

On another subject, keep up the good work with cello. I came looking for practice inspiration (I took several months off and now face getting back on the horse; it's so hard to start again after getting rusty). Also, I have some other cello and blog-related questions to ask you, but can't locate your email on this site. Would you email me again at andromeda@romanolax.com?
 
Your description inspired me to check both books out of the library, having not previously read Confederacy of Dunces. I quite enjoyed the novel, though made the serious error of starting into the last third at 11pm, intending to read a chapter or two before sleeping. Bad place to start with any intention of stopping. I don't have quite the ties to New Orleans that you do, but have been there often enough to experience a special nostalgia for what used to be. And the best time to read the biography has to be right after finishing Confederacy... for the first time. It's fascinating to see life refracted through fiction.
 
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