The True Wasteland
“Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins,” Ignatius tells his mother, Irene Reilly, for the umpteenth time, as they wait in the safety of the Night of Joy bar on Bourbon Street. They’d tucked in there to avoid Patrolman Mancuso, and drank a couple of Dixie 45s while waiting. In one simple sentence with one subordinate clause, Toole, in the voice of Ignatius, referred to the titles of the most famous literary works of two of the most brilliant writers in the English language: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and T. S. Elliot’s apocalyptic poem, The Wasteland.
After my last cup of coffee Wednesday night I hurled myself in the 2000 pound missile that is otherwise my car, into the black void of the Causeway toward the north shore. Taking off in the black of night across the Causeway always feels like an act of sheer faith, because you have to believe that the 23 mile bridge will continue to be ahead of you. Aside from occasional taillights ahead, or headlights on the parallel bridge coming toward you, there is little to console you alone in your car in the black night except faith or habit. When I first lived on the North Shore in the 1990s, I had neither, and I often panicked, long after midnight, going north on the causeway, which would be devoid of the signs of humanity, except for the engineering it took to build the structure that you can usually see about 40 feet of on a clear, dark night. On foggy nights, you can’t see taillights ten feet in front of you, and the authorities often close the Causeway to wait for the fogs to lift.
Toole’s exquisite little sentence evokes this modernity-caused angst. The engineers built the Causeway, but Lake Pontchartrain is just deep enough to conjure the kind of wonder in its travelers that brings up images of an automobile graveyard below the Causeway. It would tell future archaeologists all about the Causeway–when it was first opened to traffic, socio-economic profiles of its travelers, and since you can drive with alcohol in your car, the plastic daiquiri cups, probably down there forming their own plasticene layer in the Lake anyway, would tell on that, too. Only about ten feet of water washes across this probable graveyard, which is about the only one below the surface of the ground, or water, in the New Orleans area.
This sentence also orients the reader to the mindset of the New Orleans locals. The rest of the world may see New Orleans as a center of sin and licentiousness, but there is a hardy, Catholic-centered strain of morality here, too. Many New Orleanians, who wouldn’t seriously consider living anywhere else, do see the world outside the city limits as potential cesspits of corruption, terror, and moral iniquity–and worse, endless boredom. Dorian Greene’s fear of the prospect of having to return to Nebraska to live, is an expression of the New Orleans-centric way the rest of the world lives.
Toole goes into some development in describing the two century-old, 3-story French Quarter mansion, complete with a third floor for spinster tantes and slave quarters, that Greene’s Nebraska farmer family bought for him sounds exquisite, although it was an abomination and an offense to taste and decency in Ignatius’s mind. In the 1950s, such a house in the dilapidated condition most French Quarter buildings were in in the 1950s could have been bought for a song. Toole says the house had 3 foot thick walls. It was the kind of building built by the French with means in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The structures with thick walls, high ceilings, and shutters were built to maximize the movement of air, keep the air as cool as possible in the New Orleans summers, and as warm as possible in the mild, but often humid, New Orleans winters.
Greene could have decorated it for a song in the 1950s and early 1960s, and ended up with an elegant New Orleans pied a terre. Ignatius thought the house was an abomination, but it sounds beautiful to me. It sounds something like the kind of French Quarter house that Lindy Boggs owns, only more elegant. It also sounds a bit like the Pontalba, the place where Irene Reilly crashed into the iron post holding up a balcony at St. Ann and Chartres Streets, which is certainly part of the Pontalba. The Pontalba, however, was originally built as townhouses, with places for shops on the first floor. In general, this might have provided Toole the inspiration for French Quarter buildings in general, but not be a building that actually exists in the French Quarter. However, I’m not certain. I plan to walk the area tonight.