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For The Confederacy Literate, It's Time To Go To Another Level
This article first appeared in issue 25, and was written by Pen Waggener. The full title appeared as: For the Confederacy literate, it's time to go to another level: Managing Ignatius.
Book Review: Managing Ignatius: The Lunacy of Lucky Dogs and Life in the Quarter, by: Jerry E. S trahan
LSU Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-8071-2241-6
It's been about 30 years now since John Kennedy Toole produced what has come to be regarded as one of the finest comic novels of the twentieth century. Toole's book perfectly captured the romance and sadness of life in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and his tragic suicide before its discovery and publication means that the book is a singular treasure.
Toole's work, A Confederacy of Dunces, chronicles the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, whom Walker Percy describes as "slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one-who is in violent revold against the modern age." An unfortunate turn of fate forces Ignatius to leave the safety of his New Orleans home and venture into the French Quarter in search of work. What follows are a series of misadventures unparalleled in American letters.
Ignatius overhauls the operations at Levy Pants, first by secretly throwing away all their files, then by offending their best customer, and finally by instigating a riot to protest the wages of the other workers.
After his dismissal from Levy Pants, Ignatius has several more unsuccessful interviews-"Apparently I lack some particular perversion which today's employer is seeking."-before he lands a job with Paradise Vendors. His mother is much dismayed by Ignatius' new position. "'He don't care about his poor mama,' Mrs. Reilly said. 'With all his education, mind you. Selling weenies on the street in broad daylight.'"
Of course, Ignatius' tenure with Paradise Vendors is even worse than his stay at Levy Pants, and in the end he is forced to flee with his reactionary girlfriend, Myra Mynx, one step ahead of the police and the orderlies from the asylum.
If you haven't already read A Confederacy of Dunces, you should run, not walk, to the library or bookstore or Amazon.com and get a copy. If, however, you've already read it multiple times and have spent the time since then wishing that Toole had lived longer and written more, you really should check out Jerry Strahan's new book.
For the last 20 or so years, Strahan has been working as the manager of Lucky Dogs, the real-life French Quarter counterpart to Paradise Vendors. His new book, Managing Ignatius, recounts his career at Lucky Dogs and his interaction with the fascinating men and women-drifters, dreamers, con artists, hookers, psychotics and more-who happened to spend time as Lucky Dog vendors. To each of them he was manager, father figure, confidant and sometimes co-conspirator, and from them he got some wonderful stories.
Among the more memorable vendors was Father Larry, a well-intentioned con-man who migrated to New Orleans from Miami after founding his own church with a mail-order ordainment. As Larry puts it, "'You'd be surprised at how easy people will part with their money. They ask you to do all kinds of things. They want you to marry them, bury them, and pray for them. Their hearts were filled with joy. My wallet was filled with five new crisp twenty-dollar bills. God bless them.'"
Unfortunately for Father Larry, the folks in New Orleans didn't respond to his fund-raising activities. Instead he was met with derision. "They would walk past his table and chide, 'Ya ain't no priest, ya phony.' Larry would answer, 'Yes, you're right. God bless you.'" When he realised that the hot dog vendor next to him was doing better business than he was, Larry saw the light-"'I felt a new calling. God wanted me to be a Lucky Dog man.'"
Some vendors had tough problems. Since they work all hours of the day and night, vendors often have to learn to defend themselves from the shadier characters in the Quarter. Strahan recalls one vendor named Myer who was held up by a knife-wielding robber. Myer handed over cash, and his customer handed over his wallet, but then the robber got greedy and demanded the weenie that Myer had prepared for the customer. "At that point, the [customer] became upset. He pulled a pistol from beneath his jacket and shouted, 'I'll be damned if you're taking my Lucky Dog.' The robber fled."
Other vendors proved even tougher under pressure. Roy Williams showed up at a time when Strahan was terribly short of vendors, only to be met on his first night by a couple of muggers. Instead of giving in to them, Williams grabbed a chair-leg from inside his cart and "beat those two punks into the ground." When he returned his cart that night, he relayed the story to Strahan, and started emptying a paper bag onto the counter-"keys, a knife, cash, wallets, personal items all fell into a pile. 'I rolled their asses. Next time they'll think twice before they try and rob a hot dog man.'"
The only problem with Managing Ignatius is a slight case of "Grishman's Syndrome." Like the legal thrillers that focus too much on the court-room wrangling and procedure issues of the lawyers instead of the characters facing the real moral challenges, Strahan sometimes spends too many pages on the day-to-day business decisions of Lucky Dogs, and not enough time on the French Quarter characters that really make the book come alive. Overall, though, Strahan paints a fascinating picture of the people he got to work while managing the Lucky Dogs operation. He also does a fine job chronicling the changes that have occurred in the French Quarter during his tenure, as New Orleans began to focus on the tourist traffic that is the cornerstone of its economy today. Through it all, Lucky Dogs survived and prospered, and Strahan helped keep the Ignatiuses of the world employed a little longer.
This story was posted on 1999-04-15 12:01:01
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