A block of downtown Baton Rouge was transformed Saturday into a New Orleans-themed street party but with a distinctive 1960s flavor that would be familiar to any reader of the classic novel “A Confederacy of Dunces.”
In addition to the sounds of a brass band and the aroma of red beans and rice, there were steamed hot dogs for sale from the Lucky Dogs cart and people wandering around in flannel shirts and trooper hats with ear flaps just like the attire of the novel’s colorful central character, Ignatius J. Reilly.
The event at North Boulevard Town Square launched the East Baton Rouge Parish Library’s annual “One Book, One Community” reading program, which will feature free workshops and discussion groups about “A Confederacy of Dunces” throughout the spring.
“It’s the quintessential book about New Orleans and the incredible characters therein,” said assistant library director Mary Stein.
Written in 1963 by John Kennedy Toole, the novel is about the idealistic yet sloppy 30-year-old Reilly, who lives in Uptown New Orleans with his mother. Reilly dislikes the pop culture of the 1960s and frequents the movies for the purpose of criticizing them.
The book is noted for its vivid descriptions of New Orleans culture, residents’ dialect and local businesses, including Lucky Dog hot dog carts that appear throughout the book.
“He’s 30; he can’t get a job or keep a job because he’s so opinionated, so he resorts to selling Lucky Dogs, which are an institution and you can still see them around New Orleans,” said Louise Hilton, a reference librarian at the Main Library. “But he thinks it’s beneath him.”
However, Reilly never leaves New Orleans to look for other opportunities — with the exception of a bus trip to Baton Rouge, a city he calls “the whirlpool of despair” in the book.
“New Orleans has such personality that some people there wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Hilton said.
Becky Gouvier said Toole captured New Orleans perfectly.
“You could just read the dialogue,” she said. “It’s more than the accent — their culture, too.”
Her husband, Drew Gouvier, said there is an unchanging nature to the New Orleans culture of the 1960s that Toole captures in his novel.
“It’s still there today, just a little updated,” Gouvier said.
He believes “A Confederacy of Dunces” holds value for readers outside of New Orleans, too, and said people should read it because “it’s our Louisiana heritage.”
Stein said the library wanted to celebrate Louisiana with this year’s reading program.
“It was 10 years after Katrina this year, and we’ve been dying to do this book anyway,” Stein said. “New Orleans in the '60s had a lot of character. We celebrate it as part of our culture, and frankly, it’s an economic driver.”
She said the One Book, One Community programs, which the library has conducted since 2007, give people of all backgrounds something common to talk about.
“These shared experiences are really important in a diverse community to help knit connections,” Stein said. “With all of the books we’ve chosen, even if they’re delightful and fun, there’s serious issues worth discussing. In ‘Confederacy of Dunces,’ one of the serious programs we’ll offer in the spring deals with suicide.”
Toole committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 31. Simon and Schuster had rejected “A Confederacy of Dunces” a few years earlier, but in 1980, Toole’s mother succeeded in getting it printed by the LSU Press with help from novelist Walker Percy. Toole posthumously won a Pulitzer Prize.
Laura Shows, a music and art teacher who lives in Prairieville, said she has never read the book but wants to after happening upon the library’s event downtown on Saturday. She said she first heard about Toole’s struggle to get his novel published while reading a book about success stories.
“He was a success story, but he gave up and committed suicide before his story was told and the book was published,” Shows said. “I think it’s important — the story of struggling artists making it big.”