Has there ever been a character quite like Ignatius J. Reilly, the self-righteous, gas-expelling, medieval philosophy-spouting, hot dog-chomping protagonist of “A Confederacy of Dunces”? In his mad quest, waged from his mother’s house, against the indignities and inappropriateness of modern life, Reilly is no hero. Not even an antihero. He’s like an anti-antihero.
The book follows Reilly as he attempts to find work, forced to earn some money after an accident. It all unfolds as a farce, with characters and events piling up and the gears of the plot slowly, inexorably interlocking as it drives forward. “A Confederacy of Dunces” manages to be a Great American Novel while focusing almost entirely on a time and place unlike any other: New Orleans in the 1960s. It is also simply one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, though the humor is often close to tragedy.
The story behind “A Confederacy of Dunces” is as remarkable as the book itself. Toole committed suicide without ever seeing his novel published. After his death, Toole’s mother spent years trying to convince publishers to look at the book. Eventually, she convinced a beleaguered novelist, Walker Percy, who figured he could dismiss it after a page or two. He was instead shocked at the quality and helped get the book to print. In 1981 it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
“A Confederacy of Dunces” is the only book I have immediately begun reading again after I had first finished. It’s not without its flaws, but I really think these only add to its immense charm.
You can find previous editions of The Read in our archive. For more on literature, art, food, wine, and a real perspective on the news these things seem to make, follow our Arts & Culture Correspondent Ben on Twitter.