When I was in high school and a friend urged me to read “A Confederacy of Dunces,” I quickly changed the subject. I doubted that I could match my classmate’s wild enthusiasm for the book — what novel could be that good ? — and I disliked the thought of reading something to satisfy a social obligation. It seemed too much like homework. But Richard wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Sighing, I got a paperback copy of my own, expecting to read just enough to convince myself what a waste of time it was. Thirty pages in, I was reading so rapturously that I resented having to stop for supper, for real homework, for sleep.
“Confederacy,” it turned out, was about Ignatius Reilly, a New Orleans teenager very much like me. The novel pegged his age at 30, but I dismissed that as a misprint. His firm conviction that every other person on the planet was an idiot — and that his mind alone had reached a sublime level of genius — identified Ignatius as a classic 16-year-old. The title, borrowed from a Jonathan Swift quote, is about the quintessentially adolescent idea that the rest of the world is clueless, even downright hostile to one’s own dreams and ambitions. Here’s how Swift puts it: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him.”
“A Confederacy of Dunces” offered other attractions to a boy in high school. Ignatius has a recurring problem with gas — comedy gold for a sophomore still fascinated by flatulence. The book is full of inappropriate behavior, as one might expect from a novel set largely in the French Quarter. It’s not the kind of fiction likely to end up on an official high school reading list, which is yet another reason I loved it so much, and love it still. “Confederacy” author John Kennedy Toole speaks to the subversive in us who never grows up.
Toole so deeply grounds his book in New Orleans that I initially assumed it was a quaint local vintage, not likely to travel well beyond Louisiana. Imagine my amazement, while browsing in a Greenwich Village bookstore many years later, to overhear two New Yorkers agreeing that “Confederacy” was a must-read. I shouldn’t have been so surprised. More than 3.5 million copies of the book have been sold around the world.
Two recent developments promise to broaden readership for “Confederacy” even more. Nick Offerman — Ron Swanson, of network television’s “Parks and Recreation” fame — plans to star as Ignatius in a theatrical version of the novel premiering in Boston this fall. Meanwhile, Baton Rouge’s One Book/One Community program is urging everyone to read and discuss “Confederacy” this spring.
If you haven’t read “A Confederacy of Dunces,” I don’t want to scare you off by insisting that you have to. But you really should.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.