Ignatius Reilly: Catholic of Tomorrow, Today

Ignatius is both less and more than a self-portrait of his creator, but when it came to the Church, Toole lived out an ambivalence as profound as his hero's. Though he described himself in the early 1960s as a "Christmas and Easter Catholic," Toole sprang to the Church's defense when she came under attack from the liberal students he taught at Hunter College. (In Confederacy, Toole has a dig at them when he makes Myrna subscribe to ridiculous anti-papal conspiracy theories.) On the whole, he seems to have been at least as comfortable teaching at a Catholic college in New Orleans as he was in Manhattan.

Biographers René Pol Nevils and Deborah Hardy report that many of his friends believed Toole was gay; one longtime New Orleans resident offered a detail account of a fling they'd had. Another friend recalls him denouncing homosexuality as "unworthy," an opinion he puts down to Church influence. In 1969, at the age of 31, and after several years of increasingly visible mental distress—one likely source being Simon and Schuster's rejection of his novel—Toole took his own life. He did it by running a garden hose from his car's exhaust pipe through its front window, ensuring that his body and face remained fit for an open-casket funeral Mass.

Ignatius gets a happier ending—actually, a new beginning. Forced by his mother to get a job, he becomes, by turns, a clerk at a pants factory and a hot dog vendor. Both positions he uses as platforms for political activism of a characteristically bizarre type. First, he organizes the black workers at the pants factory into the Society for Moorish Dignity and sets them against the indulgent plant manager. Next, he calls on the sodomites—his word—of the French Quarter to seize control of world government. (World peace will be a cinch if nations can settle their differences by throwing cocktail parties, he reasons.) On the verge of being committed to a mental hospital, he ends up escaping to New York with Myrna, whose intervention is as abrupt as the cockatoo's.

Toole was an avid reader of Flannery O'Connor's work, and Ignatius bears a certain superficial resemblance to callow layabouts like Asbury in "The Enduring Chill" or Julian in "Everything that Rises Must Converge." But whereas O'Connor whacks her slobs in the face with Eternal Truth, Toole pitches his hero, largely unharmed, into a wide world in which there are no certainties. We're left to guess what becomes of him—maybe he reclaims his faith and joins Dorothy Day, maybe he renounces it and joins the original cast of "Oh! Calcutta!" He heads, in short, for the space of endless possibility that all modern Catholics occupy, whether they like it or not.

10/9/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Catholic
  • An Israelite Without Guile
  • John Kennedy Toole
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  • Max Lindenman
    About Max Lindenman
    Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon.