New Orleans is one of those places with a lot of flavor. Whether it’s the food, the music, the stories or the neighborhoods, there’s always something unique to experience, and always someone more than willing to share their opinions on all of it. My first time there, in fact, I met such a character. New Orleans personified, this man told me everything — and I mean everything — about what he declared to be the best city anywhere. He told me where to eat, which sights to see, what historical facts and important people I needed to know. He even told me what book to read. This self-proclaimed expert on everything New Orleanian decreed, unequivocally, that if I could read but one book about New Orleans, that that one book must be John Kennedy Toole’s masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces.
Chronicling the misadventures and musings of New Orleans native Ignatius J. Reilly, this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel paints a vivid portrait of life in the Crescent City during the 1960’s. Still living with his mother at the age of 30, the highly educated (yet equally incompetent) Reilly embarks upon an ill-fated quest for employment, and in the process, entangles himself with a second-line of characters that one could only expect to find in a place such as New Orleans.
With a personality reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, the audacious Ignatius J. Reilly manages to sweep everyone — myself included — along in his madness, despite his obvious repugnance. Surprisingly, the maelstrom of calamities that follow in his wake serve not as a deterrent, but as a motivation to champion Reilly’s cause.
John Kennedy Toole superbly captures the essence of the wildly colorful and completely unapologetic Crescent City. Just like in real life, the New Orleans of Toole’s making is at times bawdy and shocking, but also anchored in tradition and full of heart. If you do decide to glimpse into this wonderfully wild world, be sure to read the forward, which tells the moving true story of how A Confederacy of Dunces came into being.
“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him.”
– Jonathan Swift