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 So the manuscript remained unpublished and Toole, defeated and devastated, set it aside.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.
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.