A Confederacy of Dunces

A hurricane, feeding off the 30-degree Celsius water of the Gulf of Mexico, dropped in on New Orleans last week at near maximum strength. Some of you may have heard about it: they called it Hurricane Katrina. The force of the storm surge coupled with the high winds has resulted in a flooding of 80% of the city, with a million or more people displaced and homeless. The storm knocked out gas production in the gulf and destroyed the port facilities of New Orleans, where some 14% of the gasoline used in the U.S.A. (used to be) refined. The immediate effect was a 30% hike in the price of a liter of gas all across North America; the longer-term effects have yet to be seen.

We at the ALLDERBLOB have our own take on the miserable turn of events in the U.S.A. We watched the car-clogged highways (both north- and southbound lanes of all major interstates devoted to one purpose: “getting out of town”), before the storm hit. At the time, we asked ourselves is this really the way the system is supposed to work? After all, the Interstates were designed to allow the evacuation, in case of atomic bomb attack, of whole cities in the U.S.

We wonder how many drivers, sitting in true gridlock on the highway out of New Orleans that day, their engines idling to keep the A/C going, realized how the “gospel of the car ad,” the central lie about the “freedom and independence” a car gives us, was being revealed?

How many viewers of the TV footage from their homes across North America considered the meaning of images of car-clogged interstate highways lying at a stand-still? How many noticed that in an automobile-dependent society like that of the U.S. (and Canada), one’s access to mobility is increasingly class-driven, with poor people “left behind” in huge numbers when the call to evacuate comes?

How are they supposed to leave town? In the train they call the city of New Orleans, there were no trains. Bicycles? Even if people had bicycles, there is no infrastructure friendly to cyclists in much of the United States. You had to have a car to get out of town, and a significant proportion of New Orleans residents are too poor to own a car.

What we know about New Orleans has been filtered through one book, A Confederacy of Dunces.

In the late 1960s, a Louisiana writer named John Kennedy Toole constructed this labyrinthine symphony of a novel, exchanged pleasantries with an editor in New York on the subject of whether it was ready for publish (Toole believed it was; the editor, unfortunately, disagreed), drove to the nearby town of Biloxi, Mississippi, attached a hose to the tailpipe of his car, stuck it through the window, and breathed his last.

It was 1969. Toole was 32 years old. The suicide note he left was destroyed by his mother, with whom he had been living. As for the novel manuscript, it eventually found its way (via Toole’s mother) to the desk of Walker Percy, then head of Louisiana State University Press, who saw its greatness immediately, and saw that it was published. By now, it’s already 1980. The following year the novel won a Pulitzer prize for literature; it is still in print; it has sold more than 1.5 million copies (according to Wikipedia).

A Confederacy of Dunces is not just among the greatest, and funniest, novels ever written, it is an amazing portrait of a city and its people. Its cast of characters includes an enterprising but uneducated and poverty-stricken African-American, Burma Jones, whose aspiration to join the middle class (as represented in the advertisements [oh, finally, we get to the point –ed.] he reads in magazines) is palpable.

A sample of the book, from chapter two, follows:

“Look at that old gal,” Jones mused to his psyche as the bus bounced and threw him against the woman sitting beside him. “She think cause I color I gonna rape her. She about to throw her grammaw ass out the window. Whoa! I ain gonna rape nobody.”

He moved discreetly away from her, crossing his legs and wishing that he could smoke on the bus. He wondered who the fat cat in the green cap was who was suddenly all over town. Where would that fat mother show up next? There was something ghostly about that green-cap freak.

“Well, I gonna tell that po-lice I gainfully employ, keep him off my back, tell him I met up with a humanitaria payin me twenty dollar a week. He say, ‘That fine, boy. I’m glad to see you straighten out.’ And I say ‘Hey!’ and he say, ‘Now maybe you be becomin a member of the community.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I got me a nigger job and nigger pay. Now I really a member of the community. Now I real nigger. No vagran. Just nigger.’ Whoa! What kinda change you got?”

The old woman pulled the bell cord and got out of the seat, trying self-consciously to avoid any contact with the anatomy of Jones, who watched her writhing through the detachment of his green lenses.

“Look at that. She think I got siphlus and TB and a hard on and I gonna cut her up with a razor and lif her purse. Ooo-wee.”

The sunglasses watched the woman climb off the bus into a crowd standing at the bus stop. Somewhere in the rear of the crowd an altercation was going on. A man with a rolled-up newspaper in his hand was striking another man who had a long red beard and was wearing bermuda shorts. The man in the beard looked familiar. Jones felt uneasy. First there was the green-cap phantom and now this person he couldn’t identify.

Jones turned from the window when the man in the red beard ran off and opend the Life magazine that Darlene had given him. At least Darlene had been pleasant to him at the Night of Joy. Darlene subscribed to Life for purposes of self-improvement and, in giving it to Jones, had suggested that he might find it helpful, too. Jones tried to plow through an editorial about American involvement in the Far East but stopped midway, wondering how something like that could help Darlene become an exotic, the goal that she had referred to again and again. He turned back to the advertisements, for they were the things that interested him in magazines. The selection in this magazine was excellent. He liked the Aetna Life Insurance ad with the picture of the lovely home that a couple had just bought. The Yardley Shaving Lotion men looked cool and rich. That’s how the magazine could help him. He wanted to look just like those men.

In the end of the novel, it gives nothing away to say that Burma Jones redeems himself. His aspirations, summed up in a different passage as to have “a bobby-cue set, Buick, air condition, TV…” are soon to be met.

And so the novel takes a turn, from comic to tragic. And in the recent events in New Orleans, we see the Burma Joneses of our own age striving for, and attaining, the consumer goods denied them by circumstance. We refer, of course, to the “looters” (if they’re African-American) and “finders” (if they’re white) who wade the chest-deep waters in search of salvageable items.

Sadly, Hurricane Katrina has destroyed the New Orleans of A Confederacy of Dunces. A week or so ago the levees were breached in two places and the city, built below sea level, was inundated with water. The old city is likely never to return. By the time the levees are repaired and the water pumped from the 80% of the city that is now flooded (ironically, a bronze statue of A Confederacy of Dunces hero Ignatius J. Reilly, which was erected at the site of the former J.D. Holmes department store at 800 Iberville Street, is on high ground and still stands), months are likely to have passed. The foundations of vast stretches of the city will have been ruined by the effluent-laced water; entire blocks are likely to need razing.

In his online newspaper Carfree Times, Joel Crawford (something of a flood expert, it turns out), calls for the removal to higher ground of the entire city of New Orleans, saying it was a travesty for it to have been built there in the first place, and a heaping of good money after bad to keep building the levees higher against the rising Mississippi river delta and the higher sea level of a climate-changing world. “Unfortunately, as it now stands, the likely outcome of this tragedy will be to set the stage for the next one. This city will probably be rebuilt in its present location, where it will remain in harm’s way no matter what else may be done.”

Interestingly, Crawford doesn’t necessarily herald the tragedy as an opportunity to build a new car-free city, a city of canals and water-taxis, on the present site. This despite the fact that for him Venice is the sine qua non of sophisticated urban design, a model to which his own designs for car free cities all defer.

Our second touchstone of decency and good taste, James Howard Kunstler’s Clusterfuck Nation, has this to say on the subject of rebuilding New Orleans: “Much of the stuff just outside New Orleans, and along the Gulf Coast, was largely post-war suburban fabric — collector boulevards with their complements of fry pits, malls, muffler shops and subdivisions. We’d hope that the states of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana will not undertake to rebuild them they way they were. The era of easy motoring is over now, and to rebuild suburban sprawl would be a double tragedy.”

Meanwhile, Jan Lundberg, on his Culture Change website, takes an even more pessimistic tack. The disaster in New Orleans, he writes, will possibly come to be seen as the pin that pricked the balloon of the petroleum-based economy once and for all. For Lundberg it isn’t a question of where or how to rebuild New Orleans; he puts forward the case that this is the trigger of what he calls “petrocollapse” and that no significant rebuilding will take place at all. He poses a key question, one that we have asked as well: “If this is the point in our history when one may say in the future in retrospect that Katrina touched off petrocollapse and the transition to sustainability, will our behavior start to show some collective intelligence before Katrina‚Äôs big sister — total petrocollapse and climate distortion to the max — visits us? ”

2 Responses to “A Confederacy of Dunces

  1.  

    [...] then there were the folks in New Orleans, on another anniversary–the one where Hurricane Katrina delivered devastation and forced a rather more sordid gathering at a different NFL football [...]

  2.  

    [...] yesterday (Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace), but longer than that ALLDERBLOB touchstone, A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s a first novel by Susanna Clarke, who spent 10 years writing it (according to [...]

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