Post Road Magazine #15

Various

Quinn Dalton

This sort of thing is tough—naming a work or two that stand out from all of those other beloved books on my shelf, a beauty contest in which every contestant is a knockout. But if pressed, I usually mention two. Both are contemporary novels set in the latter half of the twentieth century in famous, now-ruined but slowly recovering cities. Both feature main characters caught up in intrigue, of which they soon become, for better or worse, architects. Both are darkly comic, though one is more comic than dark, and the other is, well, the other way around.

1.

A Confederacy of Dunces is the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, whose diminished family circumstances force him to move into the workforce, which marks his rise to notoriety among the panhandlers and politicos, swindlers, starstruck strippers, street vendors, shady cops, deluded revolution planners, and other bottom-feeders roaming the French Quarter. It is the story of his long-suffering mother and his sex-crazed activist girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff, and how he ruins their lives, and how they hate him and love him for it, and how we do too. It’s also one of the smartest, funniest, most unapologetic satires I’ve ever read—of bigotry, social activism, corruption in one of the most corruption-mired cities in the world, and God knows what all else I’ve missed. Because every time I read this book, I experience the story more fully. Flipping through it now, I want to quit writing and just tuck into it again.

A Confederacy of Dunces was one of Those Books for me, maybe the book. Its fabulously farcical plot, sympathetic anti-hero, and cast of hysterically self-important, bedraggled, magnificent characters blurred my vision for weeks, so that my Toyota became a rattling streetcar, the street signs flickering Canal, Decatur, Royal. When my husband and I made the pilgrimage to New Orleans, five years before the flood (I suspect time in New Orleans will always be measured in this way—Before and After), I wandered the French Quarter like a dazed Da Vinci Code devotee lurking at the Louvre. My husband and I, tipsy on hurricanes, tried to find the three-story stucco house on Saint Peter’s Street, the site of the coup-planning/costume party hosted by Dorian Greene. Of course it wasn’t there. Of course it was there anyway.

Many know the story behind this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, published in 1980, eleven years after the death of its author, John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide at the age of thirty-two. After some initial enthusiasm, Simon & Schuster had rejected his book, deeming it not “really about anything” (I guess the world wasn’t yet ready for a story about nothing, à la Seinfeld). Toole’s mental condition seemed to deteriorate after this—he took to heavy drinking, medications. After his death Toole’s mother brought the manuscript to Walker Percy and insisted he read it, and the rest is, you know. History.

Toole actually wrote two books, and although Neon Bible doesn’t have the literary power of Dunces, it explores the same themes—family, religion, society—all with their attendant absurdities. You can see him already thinking at age sixteen (he wrote Neon Bible for a literary contest, though it wasn’t published until twenty years after his death because of legal disputes among his surviving relatives); you can see the wheels of his genius turning toward Fortuna’s Wheel, which controls Ignatius’s fate most cruelly, as he would tell it.

Neon Bible was made into a feature film in 1995. A film adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces was scheduled for release in 2005, but like several other previously attempted productions, it has since been put on hold.

I haven’t seen the film adaptation of Neon Bible, but I probably wouldn’t be able to resist seeing Dunces: The Movie! (the studio heads renaming it, as Ignatius would wearily explain, so as not to confuse the mongoloid masses with any title verging on the multisyllabic). I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hang out at Night of Joy and see Darlene try out her new act and watch Jones plotting his next move, while Ignatius, massive, eternally offended and offensive, sets off disaster with his every lunatic and yet oddly logical scheme.

I just want to know—I wish I could ask Toole: Did it feel different when you let Ignatius loose on New Orleans? Did you feel exhilarated? Did you panic a little bit when you realized what you’d set in motion?

2.

Scott Simon, author of the acclaimed 2005 novel Pretty Birds, already had a reputation as an award-winning correspondent covering ten wars, and his media connections made recognition of Pretty Birds’ arrival a foregone conclusion.

But if you haven’t read this book, you need to. Now. The story opens in the spring of 1992 in Sarajevo at the beginning of the longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare—nearly four years. Irena Zaric is a high school basketball star, a voracious follower of Western pop culture—Madonna, Michael Jordan, and Princess Di are among her heroes—and a Muslim. Her best friend, Amela, is a Serb. And yet they are both really of mixed descent—Irena’s father is half Serb, half Jewish, for example. What they both become is unimaginable to them in that spring when Sarajevo, taken over by black-clad Serb paramilitaries, becomes a divided city and a permanent war zone.

Displaced with her parents in her grandmother’s apartment (her grandmother is murdered at the outbreak of the war), Irena is hired by her former assistant principal, Tedic, initially to perform odd jobs at the Sarajevo Brewery. Soon she is trained as a sniper, as were many teenaged women on the Bosnian and Serb sides of the war. She learns to sit still for hours, to watch for the pink cloud or “mist” around her target that confirms a hit.

The violence in this book is depicted vividly but matter-of-factly, in the manner one would expect from someone who has learned not to ask after friends who may be dead, to steal from the dead, and to eat boiled leaves. The story constantly moves, twists, rips at your heart, makes you root helplessly for its heroes, who are doomed, and who would never call themselves heroes anyway. Tedic, for example, would call himself a pacifist, “when the world permits.” War hones Irena’s sense of irony to a brutal point; her humor is as sharp as her aim.

Who can blame her? She lives in a world where UN soldiers trade favors for sex, where loudspeakers blaring from the other side of the siege line cajole you to give in, where snipers pick off people waiting in line for water and then pick off anyone who tries to retrieve the bodies. We may remember it from the news, but we never knew those people, the thousands starved and shot in that city, the thousands more shoved into mass graves. This book forces you to know them. You want nothing else but to know them.

I was close to home while reading this book, nursing my second daughter. One afternoon I left her in the care of my mother-in-law while I went to get a haircut. I was amazed that I was able to walk outside in the daylight without crouching to evade snipers.

My husband and I are friends with a couple who came out of Sarajevo with only their suitcases. Their two sons, born in the US, are the same ages as our two daughters. He is Catholic; she is Muslim—another example of how so many families were blended, which only adds to the shock of how the country held tightly together by Marshal Tito tore itself apart. In Sarajevo she was an attorney with a top firm, and he was a maître d’ at a five-star restaurant in which he had partial ownership. When their apartment was burned, they moved in with relatives. When they found a way out in January 1996, they came to Greensboro, North Carolina, through Lutheran Family Services. He found work as a waiter; she as a nanny. Now she is a paralegal with one of Greensboro’s top firms, and he owns a convenience store. They’ve bought a house; they have continued their lives with intelligence and humor and unfailing grace.

They have been our friends for these eleven years now, and we feel lucky to know them, but we know our luck is a direct result of the shredding of their former lives. They don’t talk about their last years in Sarajevo very much. Sometimes a moment will come to conversation—the time a mortar round destroyed the café she had gone into to try to use a working phone, the time he watched soldiers eating their shot glasses because they felt they’d already cheated death that much.

Sometimes I felt embarrassed as I read Pretty Birds, for two reasons. One, because I lived in comfort while these people starved or were tortured or were killed (as is true every day—now Iraq, now Darfur, now Palestine, only the beginning of a long list we can apparently live with). And two, because of my friendship with this extraordinary couple, I felt somehow I’d pried into their lives in a way I shouldn’t have. This is the triumph of Pretty Birds.

 

 

Quinn Dalton is the author of a novel, High Strung, and a story collection, Bulletproof Girl. Her third book, Stories from the Afterlife, was published last October.

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