Part II – Confederacy, New Orleans
The novel’s New Orleans setting is essential to its flavor, and cleaving to his hometown is central to Ignatius’ worldview: American culture is terrible, so why would you want to see more than you have to? For Reilly, a lad in his early 30s, the worst thing about mid-century America is that it’s not medieval Europe. He spends his best days writing letters and journal entries, reading the late Roman philosopher Boethius, and playing his lute inside the small and squalid shotgun house he lives in with his widowed mother, Thelma. His worst days are spent venturing out at her behest to try to earn a living as a clerk in a failing pants factory, or as a hot dog vendor pushing a dented weenie cart through town. The repository of all of his mother’s meager dreams, Reilly has failed to “make good” – a term that he would object to strenuously. Essential to his perspective is the medieval idea that one’s station in life isn’t (and should not be) changeable. In an era when thousands of Americans had just completed college on the G.I. Bill and were enrolling in Dale Carnegie courses to cultivate a winning mindset for career success, Toole brings us into the mind of a man who sees life governed by fate and, when necessary, authority figures. Ignatius’ journal frequently becomes an ode to the ancient goddess Fortuna, who holds all of mankind in her restless, capricious hands. When he’s not dwelling on the role of fortune in human events, Ignatius yearns for priests who demand real penance; he longs for a “decent and tasteful king,” and views the disinterested pants factory owner as “our lord of commerce.”
Thus, for Ignatius, striving is meaningless. Toole seems to agree. Throughout the book, the strivers tend to be the most benighted characters of all. This is seen in the misadventures of benign characters such as beatnik do-gooder (and Ignatius’ love interest) Myrna Minkoff, and in the feckless middle-manager Mr. Gonzales. Toole’s critique of effort and goals is also seen in the exploits of villains such as Mrs. Levy, the ambitious corporate wife, or the bar proprietress Lana Lee (forever justifying her chiseling ways as “protecting her investment”). While there may be flashes of nobility in honest labor, those looking to “get ahead” are doomed. When a success does occasionally occur, it is generally the product of random occurrences. These include the picaresque actions that lead to omega-dog patrolman Mancuso’s busting a pornography ring single-handedly and the events that result in exploited African-American custodian Burma Jones’ receiving a reward and an offer of a decent job from Mr. Levy. Work if you must, the book seems to say, just don’t expect much to come of it unless Fortuna is on your side. In Part IV – which will be posted on 7/20/17, read about how the book represents the issue of slavery.
Rebecca Jones earned her M.A. in English Literature at VCU in 2016. She is an editor and copywriter at VCU and a Co-founder and Coordinator of the Working Titles Book Club.