Ignatius J Reilly and the power of persistance

In front of a former department store on Canal Street in the heart of New Orleans stands a life-sized bronze statue of a heavy-set, sloppy man who seems to be glaring at the passers by along the sidewalk. What is even more unusual is the fact that the imposing figure depicts not a president or a general, but a fictional character. The story behind the statue is both tragic and inspiring.

John Kennedy Toole was a teacher who longed to be a writer. For years, he labored on a darkly comic novel set in his native New Orleans and featuring a wild gumbo of local places, people, and peculiarities. The story begins with the protagonist, Ignatius J Reilly, waiting to meet his long-suffering mother in front of the D H Holmes department store in New Orleans. Reilly is an oddball who is nobody’s idea of a hero; he is fat, lazy, arrogant, and selfish, and seems to be in a perpetual state of sputtering outrage against the twentieth century and everyone in it. A suspicious policeman approaches Reilly and a string of chaotic and hilarious events unfolds.

Toole finally finished his novel and set out to have it published. Although there was some interest, a publisher demanded massive revisions, and still rejected the work. Publishers complained that the book wasn’t really about anything. So the manuscript remained unpublished and Toole, defeated and devastated, set it aside. Toole also suffered from depression and at the age of 31, committed suicide. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Two years later, Toole’s mother found the manuscript and set about finding a publisher. She too met with numerous rejections for five more years, but she didn’t give up. Finally, she persuaded a writer teaching at Loyola in New Orleans  to read the manuscript and he was impressed. It took several more years before he was able to get the Louisiana State University Press to publish A Confederacy of Dunces in 1980. Dunces was awarded the  Pulitzer Prize for literature the next year and has sold almost two million copies in 18 languages since then. Some critics have called Dunces one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century and hailed Ignatius J Reilly as one of the most memorable and fascinating characters in literature.

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“In the shadow under the green visor of the cap, Ignatius J Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at D H Holmes Department store for signs of bad taste in dress.”                      John Kennedy Toole…A Confederacy of Dunces


 

Which brings us back to the statue. Today, a life size representation of a bigger than life character, the incomparable Ignatius J Reilly stands in front of the building that formerly housed the DH Holmes Department Store, waiting impatiently for his mother to return….just as he does in the extraordinary novel that almost died except for persistence; the persistence of people who believed in it.

Fowl Play on the Chesapeake Bay: Get your ducks in a row…for free!

If you are looking for a children’s book to read to your kids or grandkids (or if you’re just looking for stories without sex or explosions), consider The Duckworth Papers, featuring eight original stories of the most remarkable duck on the Chesapeake Bay. It’s written for kids, but has just enough sneaky adult references to keep you interested.

So you think ducks on the Chesapeake Bay have a dull life? Then you haven’t met Duckworth and his friends. Why just a few weeks ago, Duckworth and his pal Chuck Duck got captured by watermen, and the Netley sisters came by and grabbed Gooba the cat in their nets, saving Mrs Flapper and the six fuzzy ducklings. Then Cheesy Quacker got mixed up in the Great Crab Race, Duckworth spent a scary night in the haunted marsh to impress Danielle Featherby, and the ducks had a spinnaker bouncing contest that turned into the Great Miles River Duck Riot. Then, just when they thought things had settled down, Buzz Bee Berkeley came by and told them about the mystery at Mumbles Manor.
That’s life for Bosley J. Duckworth, the most remarkable duck on the Chesapeake Bay. And to think that it all started with Mrs. Spudwell’s famous chicken-fried, five spice, three bean, deep dish. Oyster-fritter casserole.

As Old Webfoot always says, life can get weird when you’re a duck.

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And here’s the best part: from Sunday, April 10 through Thursday, April 14, you can download The Duckworth Papers to your Kindle, computer, or phone free! Just go to this link .

And if you like it, why not write a review?

What good is history?

If you ask a group of schoolkids to name their favorite subject, not many would say history. Many would say history is just memorizing what a bunch of now-dead people did a long time ago, so who cares? On the other end of the spectrum is author Michael Crichton, who said “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. You’re like a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.”

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So who needs history, anyway? Everyone does. History is the record of what people did and how it turned out; in other words, history is a catalog of experiences and precedent. Almost anything you can think of as a new idea or strategy has been done before in one form or another and the results are on record. Think of life as a series of tests and history as a book with all the answers in it. Why would you ignore it and learn the hard way?

Suppose you had a number of friends that were alcoholics and neglected their families, destroyed their heath, endangered drivers, and impoverished themselves because of it. You know this problem is widespread and you might think that banning alcohol is  reasonable response. Why not stop the problem in its tracks by using the power of the state to remove the curse of alcohol once and for all?

Well, if you know nothing of history, you might just go out and start a movement to prohibit alcohol. If you did, you would be quickly embarrassed when someone who does know about history tells you it has already been done in 1920 and the results were an explosion of drinking, bootlegging, and organized crime until Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933. How about Socialism? If you are ignorant of history it might seem like simple share and share alike, but if you read of places where Socialism was actually tried, you can see how disastrous it is in practice.

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History is a series of experiments by people. Some ideas work and some don’t. Nearly all have unexpected consequences. How do you know if a proposed action is a mistake? What if you’re wrong? It can be an expensive lesson. I once heard a coworker say “I never make the same mistake twice….but I’ve made all of them once!”

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Someone said that an experienced man learns from his mistakes, but an educated man learns from the mistakes of others. That is the value of history; it is a record of thousands of experiments and actions by thousands of people, and how they turned out. Going through life without a knowledge of history is like trying to find your way to a destination by driving down streets at random when you have a map or GPS that you never consult.

 

 

More Eastern Shore mayhem

Next week, Death across the Chesapeake, my latest Roaring 20s mystery based on real cases will be released.

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In the sixth Max Hurlock Roaring 20s Mystery, set in 1926, the Hurlocks are back on Maryland’s sleepy Eastern Shore expecting to settle down after years of solving murders. But when a local stockbroker is killed in his locked office in a building owned by the wealthy and eccentric Stilwells, the Easton police know they have a delicate situation on their hands, and turn to Max and Allison for help.
Max tries to put the pieces together, while Allison helps the mayor fend off the sensation-seeking press. The pressure mounts, but no one can say who killed the stockbroker, or even how it was done.
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Add to the mix a man from Allison’s past, an unlikely New York art dealer with a passion for mysteries, some ravenous reporters, a steel walk-in safe that seems to hold nothing of value, a book found at the crime scene that shouldn’t be there, and a small, unexplained pile of plaster dust, and it soon becomes clear that Max’s retirement from detective work was premature.
The book will be in Kindle format. Check back here for details.

In Search of Zazil Ha: The mother of modern Mexico

In the whole bloody saga of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, there are few stories more remarkable than that of Gonzalo Guerrero and Zazil Ha. Guerrero was a would-be Spanish conquistador who was shipwrecked on the unknown coast of the Yucatan in 1511. The survivors were captured and enslaved by the local Mayans. Some were sacrificed, some died of disease, and some from overwork until only Guerrero and another Spaniard named Jeronimo de Aguiller remained alive as slaves.

At some point in his captivity, however, Guerrero met and fell in love with a Mayan woman named Zazil Ha, the daughter of the local Batab, or chief. While de Aguiller remained a slave, Guerrero rose in Mayan society and became a war leader. He and Zazil Ha married and had three children, the first mixed race Mestizos who became the backbone of the Mexican nation. Then, one day, everything changed.

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In 1519, Cortez landed on Cozumel and, hearing of the two surviving Spaniards in the interior, sent a messenger with beads to ransom them. De Aguiller accepted eagerly, and served as an interpreter for Cortez during the conquest of the Aztecs. Guerrero, however, refused to return, and remained in the Yucatan, leading the Mayan resistance against his former countrymen. His knowledge of Spanish weapons and tactics helped the Mayans hold the Spaniards at bay for years.

So who was Zazil Ha that she could inspire this sort of devotion? I recently released a book, The Confessions of Gonzalo Guerrero that explored this whole story.

Zazil Ha means “clear water”, but what do we know beyond that? Was she just a passive squaw, or was she something more? Well, she must have been of an independent turn of mind to contemplate a relationship with a foreigner such as Guerrero, and she must have had the strength of will to overcome the traditional and religious strictures against it. One hint comes in the only words of hers ever recorded.

De Aguiller said that he went to see Guerrero and try to persuade him to return with him to Cortez, but Guerrero refused. De Aguiller then says that Zazil Ha appeared and berated him, saying “Why does this slave come here and talk to my husband? Away with you and don’t trouble us with any more of your words!”

Apparently, Zazil Ha was not the type of woman to sit passively while the men worked things out. She seems to have been assertive and quick-witted, not to mention intelligent. She was probably poised and attractive as well, because she obviously caught Guerrero’s eye in a big way. Once Guerrero encountered her, he was hooked. In Confessions, Guerrero describes her as standing out among the other women, “like a swan among a group of hens”.

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When Cortez arrived in Cozumel, Guerrero had a golden chance to return to Spain, probably as a rich man. All he had to do was leave his Mayan family to their fate. In Confessions, Guerrero says he was forced to choose between the country of his birth and the woman of his heart. “I made my choice,” he says, “and have never doubted I made the right one.”

Guerrero’s fight, however, was doomed as the Spaniards, with greater numbers, deadlier weapons, and disease wore the Mayans down. Guerrero died in a battle in Honduras several years later. He had fought a war he could not win for a woman he could not live without.

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Today, there are statues of Guerrero in Mexico at Cozumel, Merida, Akumal, and Chetumal. He stands bearded and proud, brandishing a spear against all who threaten his family. Next to him are his children, and Zazil Ha, the remarkable woman who inspired him and gave his life a higher purpose.

When the Dominican Republic almost became an American territory

Samana, in the Domincan Republic in the Caribbean, today is a stop for cruise ships due to its protected waters and tropical climate. But few of the cruisers enjoying the beaches and sipping rum punch realize that in 1867, Samana almost became a U.S. Navy base, and the entire Dominican Republic almost became an American protectorate.

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Beach at Samana Bay

The story begins with an idea that seems to have originated with President Ulysses S. Grant. He set in motion a plan to annex the Dominican Republic, (then called Santo Domingo) partly to obtain the use  of Samana as a naval base, partly as a place to send freed slaves from the south, partly to exert pressure on Cuba for emancipation, and partly as a check on any further European colonial expansion, especially with the possibility of a future canal to the Pacific across Nicaragua.  Grant even contemplated eventual statehood. He probably got the idea from the Dominicans themselves, who asked Spain to recolonize them as a way of paying their debts and protecting against invasion by neighboring Haiti. This was in 1861, and since our Civil War had just started, the United States was in no position to intervene. Spain obliged with the Dominican request, and occupied Santo Domingo, but left in 1865, leaving the U.S. unhappy about this violation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Grant’s proposal was surprisingly popular among the Dominicans, who saw the U.S. paying off their debts, providing an expanded market for their goods, and insuring no more Haitian invasions. The Dominican Republic was like an orphan that had a chance to be adopted by the richest family in town.

But the deal fell through. So if the U.S. President wanted it and the Dominicans wanted it, what happened?

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Santo Domingo capitol…1800s

The U.S. Congress happened. The Dominican deal required a treaty, and a treaty required a two-thirds majority. The Congress was split on the deal, and the treaty could not be ratified. Some of the objections were sound, such as the unstable nature of Santo Domingo and the creation of an American empire in the Caribbean, and some, such as the fear that Haiti would wind up as part of the deal, were perhaps overstated, but the needed votes just weren’t there. Grant was bitterly disappointed, but had to go along.

So the Dominican Republic struggled along as an independent nation and the cruise ships have an undeveloped port to enjoy. The proposed canal was, of course, built in Panama.

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Santo Domingo today..Notice the complete lack of statues of U.S. Grant.