A Confederacy of Dunces hit the shelves in 1980. Whilst that may sound normal enough, the story behind the publication of this work is tragic.
Yet that goes against the humourousness nature of the work, with lumanaries such as Billy Connolly sighting it as his favourite comedy book.
John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969) wrote it in 1963, but after failing to get it published he suffered a depressive fit and committed suicide. His mother campaigned for the next 11 years to have it reach publication, which led to Toole receiving a posthumous Pullitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.
A Confederacy of Dunces
Right, so this is a picaresque novel. This genre is where an anti-hero lives in a corrupt society and must live by his wits alone.
Enter Ignatius J. Reilly – he’s an educated man living in New Orleans in the early 1960s. Although smart enough, he’s largely bone idle and too lazy to get himself a steady job.
The tragicomedy that unfolds is a complex and absurd tale. Ignatius is a fat man of 30 who wears an odd cap and sports a strange moustache. He also keeps falling over.
He’s also steeped in Medieval history, remaining scholary in his pursuits and rather contemptuous of those around him. This seems to have triggered him off against moodern life, which he condemns rather vociferously.
What develops in the novel is a bizarre mishmash of multiple characters, making it an intricate work of high farce. Ignatius drives the story, his unconventional behaviour creating some unique plot twists as he drifts somewhat aimlessly into various situations.
You can see why some editors dismissed the novel as aimless – and we really don’t want to develop on its themes and plot too much. It’s much better as a surprise.
But for the author to labour over this work and not see his work rewarded is saddening. The book isn’t for everyone, but if it’s piqued your interest then it’s well worth your time.
John Kennedy Toole’s story is one 99.9% of all serious writers have to face – rejection. It’s happened to everyone and is an inevitability of the industry.
He suffered two rejections from famous publishers – one of whom (Simon & Schuster noted editor Robert Gottlieb) viewed him as talented but felt the book was aimless – and then in a fit of depression and paranoia ended his life.
This is actually similar to Evelyn Waugh, who tried to kill himself after the first book he wrote was rejected. After recovering from that, he wrote a new work and went on to launch his career.
Perserverance is key. In the literary world, it’s strange to see mediocre works published considering the amount of effort literary agents and publishers go to so they promote works that will sell. But, then, it’s always subjective.
Toole’s novel has enjoyed various stage adaptations. Noted deadpan comedian Nick Offerman was in one, seemingly the perfect choice to play the part of Ignatius J. Reilly.
Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh (arguably most famous for Erin Brockovich back in 2000) was also supposed to head a film production in 2005. For some reason this hasn’t materialised. In 2013 he labelled the project as “cursed” and it doesn’t look set for filming at any time soon – if at all ever.
Stephen Fry also wanted to make a big screen production with John Goodman in the lead role. But, again, that’s not turned up.
That all adds to the rather troubled history of this work, with its creator long gone and unable to control its future.