"When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him."  Jonathan Swift.

After nearly two years of revising and honing, Simon and Schuster came to the decision that they would not publish John Kennedy Toole's manuscript. One of the reasons they gave was that the book, A Confederacy of Dunces, was "not really about anything". It seems entirely appropriate that a story whose hero is engaged in a loud, swaggering, futile protest against everything that is mundane and modern should be dismissed for the prosaic reason that it doesn't seem to have a point to it.

The publishers might more justifiably have complained that the book was about too many things. At first reading it has a scattergun quality that some readers may find irritating. Alongside a large cast of supporting characters, there are a number of recurring themes that include Catholicism, race relations and medieval morality. But as the book grows on the reader it becomes clear that the elements are held together by a chain of farcical coincidences that all seem to link to the bloated, obnoxious giant in the green hunting cap and plaid flannel shirt.

The fruit of Toole's genius is as much the character of Ignatius J. Reilly as it is the neatly structured comedy he inhabits. Reilly is often compared to Don Quixote for his untenable adherence to the ideals of a past age and for the futility of his outbursts of rage. But where the Man of La Mancha is the butt of the other characters' jokes and is worthy of some sympathy from the reader, Reilly is so repulsive that the other characters, and many readers, simply recoil in horror. This is where the belly laughs come in.

If he's not blurting soggy bits of popcorn across a cinema auditorium as he splutters insults at an anodyne musical, he's persuading his fellow workers at the pants factory to confront their boss with a protest banner made from one of his unpleasantly stained bed sheets. And when he's not dressed in his hot dog vendor's pirate outfit bellowing outrageously in a strip club, he is stoking the embers of his rage by scribbling out his worldview onto the pages of his Big Chief writing tablets.

When A Confederacy of Dunces finally got into print in 1980, it quickly established something of a cult following. Although the award of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981 brought it to the attention of a wider audience, it remains one of those books that feels like a bit of a personal discovery. Devotees will always recommend it to friends and relations, often with a knowing wink.

Some of those recipients will detest the book, usually on the grounds that they object to being taken on a ride with so appalling a character as Ignatius J. Reilly. But for those that want it, A Confederacy of Dunces offers an antidote to the blandness of the workaday world. Quite apart from the entertainment value of a knockabout comedy in an evocatively realised New Orleans, there's a lingering vision of an enraged and flatulent misfit that will find you at just those moments when you are feeling oppressed by the dull and the pompous.

 

"It is a masterpiece" Harold Beaver, The Times Literary Supplement.

"A great original comic talent" Anthony Burgess, Observer.

"Witty, exuberant and addictive, a mocking eulogy of life in New Orleans" Andrew Sinclair, The Times.