How high have real estate prices in New Orleans gotten? So stratospheric that it could cost you nearly $1 million to buy Ignatius Reilly’s house.
Of course, Reilly is a fictional character, and nowhere in John Kennedy Toole’s classic New Orleans novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” does the author identify the address on Constantinople Street where the flatulent blowhard lived with his mother.
But a house on the street that has been pegged as a possible Reilly abode recently hit the market, and it’s priced somewhat north of the $7,000 Mrs. Reilly claims in the novel that she could get with a mortgage.
The house would likely not be recognizable to Ignatius: The online listing for the four-bedroom, 2½-bath Victorian camelback at 1032 Constantinople St. brags of gleaming pine floors, granite counters and a travertine bath among its 3,294 square feet, a far cry from Reilly’s “tiniest structure on the block.”
Of course, it may not be the likeliest candidate for Ignatius’ house. That honor belongs to two houses in the 600 block that are much smaller than the one at 1032, according to Dale Edmonds, who taught the book for decades as an English professor at Tulane University.
The asking price at 1032 Constantinople St. is $889,000 — and it’s already under contract. The listing references everything that Ignatius Reilly did not have and might call evidence of bourgeois sentiment: expensive stone, shiny appliances, even a roof deck from which a modern-day Ignatius might pluck his lute and disdainfully survey his neighbors.
The listing makes no mention of the owners’ theology or the house’s geometry, which likely would have caused Ignatius some indigestion.
That a house could command such a sum is evidence of how much Constantinople Street has changed from the days when Toole crafted his famous work. Then, it was a “poor but honest” neighborhood showing signs of crumble and decay.
Describing the first visit of the hapless Patrolman Mancuso, arriving on his beloved motorcycle after turning riverbound on Constantinople from St. Charles Avenue, Toole writes that the neighborhood had “degenerated from Victorian to nothing in particular, a block that had moved into the twentieth century carelessly and uncaringly — and with very limited funds.”
The only commonality between Toole’s Constantinople Street and the real-estate listing is a nod to the area’s Victorian character.
But remnants of the Constantinople Street of the 1960s remain. When Toole’s Mancuso arrives at the house, he climbs the brick steps to the porch; the house at 1032 has brick steps as well. The officer saw a neighborhood where iron fences and decrepit brick walls bordered the lots. Today, iron fences fronting houses are still common, including at 1032.
Perhaps most notably, Mancuso took note of Mrs. Reilly’s 1946 Plymouth, parked kissing the porch and extending out over the sidewalk, a feat that would still be possible today, given how close the houses are to the street.
But even these holdover elements have taken on a much more refined air. Rather than a collapsed iron fence like the one that graced the front of the Reilly house, the fences of today are erect and shiny, revealing a devotion to tidiness not found anywhere near Ignatius Reilly. The brick steps are not worn or dilapidated like the ones Mancuso mounts but bright red and neatly mortared, adding a tasteful antique touch to the luxury within.
Ignatius Reilly lived in a tiny house that may have had five rooms: one each for the tubby philosopher and his mother, plus a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room. The yard was bare, with no grass and no shrubs, just a decaying banana tree leaning on the porch.
The houses at 617 and 623 Constantinople are much more likely to have informed Toole’s description of the Reilly house, according to Tulane’s Edmonds. Of course, Toole’s work is fiction, so it’s entirely possible that the house in the book isn’t based solely on any one structure but rather a composite of humble New Orleans shotguns, Edmonds said.
Michael Bibler, an English professor at LSU, said the riverward slice of Uptown where Ignatius lived was “working class at best.”
It’s also not where Toole himself grew up. Toole had family who lived near where he set Reilly’s house, but his mother made sure he grew up among Uptown’s elites, according to René Nevils, one of the authors of “Ignatius Rising,” a biography of Toole.
For Nevils, the book is not farce — rather, it’s a love letter Toole began writing to his hometown while he was away in the Army.
“I think a lot of it rings of nostalgia and homesickness, and that’s why it rings so true,” Nevils said.
Like Reilly, Toole was an outsider. He struggled with mental illness, tragically committing suicide years before his novel was ever published. During his lifetime, the book was rejected by publishers, reportedly a great blow to its author.
“Confederacy” was published, finally, only through the tireless efforts of Toole’s mother, who pressured author Walker Percy to read it while he was a visiting professor at Loyola. Percy was reluctant; but once into it, he read with “first a sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good,” he wrote in the book’s foreword.
So what would Toole — or, more important, Ignatius Reilly, his corpulent protagonist — have thought of the New Orleans of today, with skyrocketing home prices, yoga studios and fine-dining establishments invading the very neighborhoods where Reilly scribbled on his Big Chief tablets and threatened violence against his nagging neighbor, Miss Annie?
Toole would have “had a field day” with today’s Constantinople Street, LSU’s Bibler said.
One can almost hear Ignatius thundering his contempt, blaming gentrification for the permanent sealing of his pyloric valve.
Who knows? If the affronts to good taste were upsetting enough, perhaps he might even climb into the back seat of Myrna Minkoff’s car and flee for Slidell.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.