Wednesday, September 14, 2005

`Dunces' Statue Survives Along With New Orleans's Literary Past

`Dunces' Statue Survives Along With New Orleans's Literary Past

(The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Bloomberg.)

By Edward Nawotka

Sept. 14 (Bloomberg) -- With his flannel shirt, baggy pants, scarf and hunting cap, Ignatius J. Reilly was properly attired for a snowstorm, not Hurricane Katrina.

Before the massive hurricane struck New Orleans last month, the life-size bronze statue of the main character in John Kennedy Toole's Pulitzer-winning novel ``A Confederacy of Dunces'' was moved inside the Chateau Sonesta from its outdoor perch under the hotel's famous clock on the edge of the French Quarter.

Unlike so many homes and businesses, the statue survived the worst storm ever to hit the Big Easy -- a city with a long literary tradition.

From Tennessee Williams's ``A Streetcar Named Desire'' and Nelson Algren's ``A Walk on the Wild Side'' to Walker Percy's ``The Moviegoer'' and Anne Rice's ``Interview with the Vampire,'' New Orleans is the setting of some of the most popular plays and novels of the 20th century.

Rice, Toole, Lillian Hellman and Truman Capote are all natives, but the list of writers who lived in the city or spent considerable time there also includes luminaries such as Williams, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Kate Chopin, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter and Jack Kerouac.

Fitzgerald, Faulkner

``A Confederacy of Dunces,'' Toole's satirical masterpiece about an eccentric 30-year-old man still living with his mother in New Orleans, occupies a special place in the city's literary history.

After failing to get his book published, Toole committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 31 by piping carbon monoxide into his car with a garden hose. Through the dogged efforts of his mother and the support of Walker Percy, the book was published in 1980 and won the Pulitzer for fiction the following year.

The Reilly statue mimics the book's opening scene, where he waits for his mom to pick him up outside the D.H. Holmes department store (now the Sonesta), a favorite meeting place for generations of New Orleans residents. Clutching a shopping bag, the shabbily dressed Reilly studies the crowd ``for signs of bad taste'' -- something he has no trouble spotting during his hilarious job-hunting adventures around the city.

Fitzgerald wrote little during his time in New Orleans, but developed a fondness for the potent local Sazerac cocktail. Faulkner, who grew up in Mississippi, wrote his first novel, ``Soldier's Pay,'' in New Orleans and the building where he lived in the French Quarter became a charming bookstore called Faulkner House.

Bohemian Lifestyle

Hellman describes her childhood in New Orleans in the early pages of her memoir, ``An Unfinished Woman,'' and Rice has used the city as a setting for many of her gothic fantasies featuring vampires and witches.

The town's bohemian lifestyle has attracted many artists and musicians, as well as writers. Algren chronicled the city's excesses in his 1956 novel ``A Walk on the Wild Side,'' which inspired Lou Reed to write a song of the same name. During the 1950s and '60s, Kerouac and fellow beat writers Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs often visited New Orleans and wrote about the city.

New Orleans continues to inspire writers interested in the supernatural, such as Jewell P. Rhodes, whose 1995 novel ``Voodoo Dreams'' is based on the life of 19th-century New Orleans priestess Marie Laveau. Another writer influenced by Rice is Poppy Z. Brite, who has switched from horror stories to crime fiction in ``Liquor'' and ``Prime,'' which both feature felonious and feckless New Orleans chefs.

Crime Novels

Crime has been a popular activity in New Orleans ever since ``Gentleman Pirate'' Jean Lafitte landed there in the early 1800s. Among the crime novels set in the city are David Fulmer's intriguing Valentin St. Cyr mysteries, and James Lee Burke's popular Dave Robicheaux series.

Just as famous as its criminals and musicians are Louisiana's colorful politicians. One of the finest political novels of the 20th century is Robert Penn Warren's 1947 ``All the King's Men,'' which was inspired by the life of former Governor and Senator Huey Long. A.J. Liebling's 1961 ``The Earl of Louisiana'' tells the story of Long's brother Earl, a three-time governor who was once committed to a mental institution.

Nancy Lemann, whose 1985 novel ``Lives of the Saints'' gives a classic portrayal of New Orleans high society, also has written about Louisiana politics. Her 1987 book, ``Ritz of the Bayou,'' is an excoriating portrait of former Governor Edwin Edwards, who went to prison for racketeering.

Yellow Fever

The city's roguish history continues to provide writers with material. Josh Russell's 2000 novel ``Yellow Jack'' vividly tells the story of a young daguerreotype photographer who documents the yellow fever epidemic that hit the city in the 1800s.

Other novels have addressed the changing character of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. John Biguenet's 2003 ``Oyster'' chronicles the rivalries between oyster-fishing families and oil companies, while Tim Gautreaux's 2004 ``The Clearing'' details a conflict between 1920s Louisiana swamp loggers and Sicilian immigrants.

Robert Olen Butler's short story collection, ``A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,'' which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993, is partly set among Vietnamese immigrants living in New Orleans.

One of the most familiar voices coming out of New Orleans these days doesn't even have a Louisiana accent. It is that of Andrei Codrescu, a Romanian emigre who is a regular contributor to National Public Radio and the editor of a local literary magazine called ``The Exquisite Corpse.'' Codrescu has published numerous paeans to his adopted city, including 1993's ``The Muse is Always Half Dressed in New Orleans.''

To contact the writer of this story:
Edward Nawotka at
Last Updated: September 14, 2005 00:06 EDT

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