The Book: John Kennedy Toole, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. Grove Press paperback reprint, 1981 (third printing). Good condition; cover is badly creased, torn at spine, pages are age-browned. Owner's signature on inside of front cover; resale price ($1.75) in pencil on front flyleaf.
First read: 1984
Owned since: 1990 (best guess, this copy)
It's Mardi Gras season, so here's the ultimate New Orleans novel. I think I bought this copy, used, from Second Story Books; it replaced one I had borrowed from a friend and kept much too long.
The story behind this book is almost as well known as the novel itself: John Kennedy Toole was a strange, lonely young man who killed himself in 1969. His mother brought this manuscript to Walker Percy when he was teaching at Loyola in 1976. Despite his misgivings, Percy read the book and was dazzled.
Percy describes the book's protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, as "a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one." Ignatius lives with his long-suffering, hard-drinking mother, who puts up with his idleness until he causes a car accident that Mrs. Reilly has to pay for. She insists that Ignatius get a job -- and he proceeds to get a series of them, wreaking havoc throughout New Orleans as he does.
Ignatius is such an iconic character that at least half a dozen actors have sought to develop the book into a movie, including John Belushi, John Candy, Stephen Fry (what a great Ignatius he'd have made), and (most recently) Will Ferrell. The movie version still hasn't been made, and it's possible that the book isn't really filmable; too many characters, too many subplots. I'd like to see John Waters take a crack at it.
The New Orleans Toole describes was gone even before Katrina, but the book feels timeless, and surely that New Orleans survives in some fashion.
As I flip through this copy, I find a remarkable thing, which must surely have been in the book when I bought it: a holy card with a prayer for the canonization of Father Francis Xavier Seelos, C.Ss.R., who died of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1867. The date on the card is 1962; I don't know whether Father Seelos has been canonized. I don't know where this card came from, or why it's in the book. But I'm going to leave it there, because it seems peculiarly appropriate to serve as a bookmark for A Confederacy of Dunces.