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A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole

Field-Tested by Jonathan Eig

in New Orleans, Louisiana

After college, I drove from New York to New Orleans in my blood-red, ‘82 Volkswagen Sirocco, the hatchback packed with a pair of enormous stereo speakers, a melon-crate full of albums, an amp, tape-deck, turntable, some clothes, and a paperback copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. I found an apartment in a French Quarter building that once served as barracks for Andrew Jackson’s troops. As I started to learn my way around town, I also began reading Dunces and fell for the book much more quickly than I fell for the city.

I read it sitting on the levee, watching the big ships float by like clouds. I read it at the bar in Coop’s Place. I read it through meetings of the Gretna City Council, which I was supposed to be covering for the Times-Picayune. Even if the book had not been set in New Orleans, I would have fallen hard for its hero, Ignatius Reilly, the gluttonous, gaseous, goof-off genius who fills Big Chief tablets with diatribes and whose pyloric valve shuts from time to time as a result of the lack of “proper geometry and theology” afflicting the world. But it was Toole's tour of the city that charmed me most. Only after I’d spent a few years there did I realize just how brilliantly he'd captured the place: the strange speech, the bizarre relations between blacks and whites, the peculiar neighborhoods that seemed like small nations unto themselves, the rotting economy, the foul odors. Especially the foul odors.

Some writers set scenes. Toole is at his best working with what stinks. I’ll never forget my first whiff of the French Quarter — all urine, puke and rot (which, I believe, is why they named it after the French), nor my first whiff of Ignatius Reilly. Ah. It still gets me.

Jonathan Eig is the author of two bestselling books: Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season. He can be found at his website.

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