While it may perhaps be questionable to refer to John Kennedy Toole, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces, as “a victim of the automobile,” it is nonetheless true that had the automobile never been invented Toole would have had to invent some other means of suicide.
Toole committed suicide on March 26, 1969, after disappearing from New Orleans, by putting one end of a garden hose into the exhaust pipe of his car and the other into the window of the car in which he was sitting.
We at the ALLDERBLOB treasure our copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. That it is our touchstone for an understanding of New Orleans was previously mentioned on these pages. The fact that we own one of the few signed copies known to exist [please don’t start with me –ed.] only increases its value to us. Once a year on this, the anniversary of Toole’s suicide, we take it from its safety deposit box, blow the dust from its pages, and delve at random into its shining brilliance.
Thus, from chapter 1:
“You got any identification, mister?” the policeman asked in a voice that hoped that Ignatius was officially unidentified.
“What?” Ignatius looked down upon the badge on the blue cap. “Who are you?”
“Let me see your driver’s license.”
“I don’t drive. Will you kindly go away? I am waiting for my mother.”
“What’s this hanging out your bag?”
“What do you think it is, stupid? It’s a string for my lute.”
The entire modern world is as stupid as this policeman to Ignatius O’Reilly. You get this message pretty quickly in the book. You get it from the title itself, and the epigraph on page one:
When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him. (–Jonathan Swift, “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”)
Swift, of course, lived from 1667-1745, and did not imagine the world of the motorcar that lay on the horizon. But for Ignatius, and for this book, the confederacy of dunces are at work most obviously in the closing of the outside world by the forces of “Auto Space” (Freund and Martin’s term, see below): a world of scenicruiser Greyhound buses that descend into “the true heart of darkness” that surrounds New Orleans like an interstate highway ring road. The confederacy is precisely that which Peter Freund and George Martin call “the ecology of the automobile” (in a book of the same name published by Black Rose, Montreal, 1993). And when Ignatius’s drunken mother gets behind the wheel of her car in chapter one we recognize the knell of a tragic bell: it rings for the world we are all stuck in. As Freund and Martin put it:
Most discourse on drunken driving reaffirms a certain kind of morality by conflating the issue of being drunk with the issue of safety. In this conflation the question of the freedom to be drunk does not surface as an important issue. …the idea of a freedom for people to get drunk or stoned while not putting others at risk seems strange. Yet the modes by which we transport ourselves are not unrelated to how dangerous various altered states of consciousness may be.
While Ignatius, as a self-defined medievalist, would say the wheel of Fortuna, goddess of fate, is the only wheel that matters, it’s the steering wheel his mother holds in chapter one that holds the real power in this book, and John Kennedy Toole, the real author of Ignatius’s fate, knows it well. He directs Ignatius to throw himself upon it:
They continued their little pattern of steps along the wet flagstones of Bourbon Street. On St. Ann they found the old Plymouth easily. Its high roof stood above all the other cars, its best feature. The Plymouth was always easy to find in supermarket parking lots. Mrs. Reilly climbed the curb twice trying to force the car out of the parking place and left the impression of a 1946 Plymouth bumper in the hood of the Volkswagen in the rear.
“My nerves!” Ignatius said. He was slumped down in the seat so that just the top of his green hunting cap appeared in the window, looking like the tip of a promising watermelon. From the rear, where he always sat, having read somewhere that the seat next to the driver was the most dangerous, he watched his mother’s wild and inexpert shifting with disapproval. “I suspect that you have effectively demolished the small car that someone innocently parked behind this bus. You had better succeed in getting out of this spot before its owner happens along.”
“Shut up, Ignatius. You making me nervous,” Mrs. Reilly said, looking at the hunting cap in the rearview mirror.
Ignatius got up on the seat and looked out of the rear window.
“That car is a total wreck. Your driver’s license, if you do indeed have one, will doubtlessly be revoked. I certainly wouldn’t blame them.”
“Lay down there and take a nap,” his mother said as the car jerked back again.
“Do you think that I could sleep now? I’m afraid for my life. Are you sure that you’re turning the wheel the right way?”
Suddenly the car leaped out of the parking spot and skidded across the wet street into a post supporting a wrought-iron balcony. The post fell away to one side, and the Plymouth crunched against the building.
“Oh, my God!” Ignatius screamed from the rear. “What have you done now?”
“Call a priest!”
“I don’t think that we’re injured, Mother. However, you have just ruined my stomach for the next few days.” Ignatius rolled down one of the rear windows and studied the fender that was pressed against the wall. “We shall need a new headlight on this side, I imagine.”
“What we gonna do?”
“If I were driving, I would put the auto in reverse and back gracefully away from the scene. Someone will certainly press charges. The people who own this wreck of a building have been waiting for an opportunity like this for years. They probably spread grease on the street after nightfall hoping that motorists like you will spin toward their hovel.” He belched. “My digestion has been destroyed. I think that I am beginning to bloat!”
Mrs. Reilly shifted the worn gears and inched slowly backward. As the car moved, the splintering of wood sounded over their heads, a splintering that changed into splitting of boards and scraping of metal. Then the balcony was falling in large sections, thundering on the roof of the car with the dull, heavy thud of grenades. The car, like a stoned human, stopped moving, and a piece of wrought-iron decoration shattered a rear window.
“Honey, are you okay?” Mrs. Reilly asked wildly after what seemed to be the final bombardment.
Ignatius made a gagging sound. The blue and yellow eyes were watering.
“Say something, Ignatius,” his mother pleaded, turning round just in time to see Ignatius stick his head out of a window and vomit down the side of the dented car.
Of course, it is “ironic” at the end of the novel [relax, no spoiler warning required here –ed.] that another wheel of another car should “save” Ignatius:
Now that Fortuna had saved him from one cycle, where would she spin him now? The new cycle would be so different from anything he had ever known.
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 center of the salt marshes. Ignatius looked out at the highway marker that reflected their headlights. U.S. 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 were a purgative, his valve opened. He breathed again, this time more deeply. The dull headache was lifting.
He stared gratefully at the back of Myrna’s head, at the pigtail that swung innocently at his knee. Gratefully. How ironic, Ignatius thought. Taking the pigtail in one of his paws, he pressed it warmly to his wet moustache.
But beyond irony is the fact that behind yet another wheel John Kennedy Toole breathed his last, some five years after the great U.S. publishing house Simon and Schuster rejected his manuscript for A Confederacy of Dunces. The editor at the helm there, whose name is lost to the sands of time, told Toole the book was “unpublishable” because it “wasn’t really about anything.”
Of course, we now know different. Thanks to the work of Toole’s mother [who must really have been a number –ed.], the book finally found itself in the hands of the great author Walker Percy, then head of Louisiana State University Press. In 1980 LSU press published the book. The following year it received the Pulitzer Prize. According to Wikipedia, the book has since sold over 15 million copies.
We leave the last word [please! –ed.] to our friend Mr. Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who wrote well before the invention of the automobile [and well before the invention of automobile advertising –ed.]:
For when any new and wide-reaching truth comes into the world—and if it is new, it must be paradoxical—an obstinate stand will be made against it as long as possible; nay, people will continue to deny it even after they slacken their opposition and are almost convinced of its truth. Meanwhile it goes on quietly working its way, and, like an acid, undermining everything around it. From time to time a crash is heard; the old error comes tottering to the ground, and suddenly the new fabric of thought stands revealed, as though it were a monument just uncovered. Everyone recognizes and admires it. To be sure, this all comes to pass for the most part very slowly. As a rule, people discover a man to be worth listening to only after he is gone; their hear, hear, resounds when the orator has left the platform.