The publishing history of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is a morose one to recount. In 1969, at the age of 31—after struggling for years with anxiety, paranoia, and depression, which were in turn catalyzed by the successive rejections of his works for publication by notable figures in the publishing business—Toole ran a garden hose from the exhaust of his car into an unventilated cabin, killing himself. Eleven years after his death, in 1980, Toole’s novel was published after his mother shared it with writer and enthusiastic reader Walker Percy. In time, it became an international success, and A Confederacy of Dunces posthumously won John Kennedy Toole the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981.
I mention all of this not merely to set the scene and sow sadness, but to establish the proper context for today’s topic: the development and embodiment of unique characters in Toole’s novel. A Confederacy of Dunces is a work of picaresque fiction, meaning that it follows the wayward exploits of a singular or iconoclastic protagonist as they attempt to navigate a variety of societal strata and scenarios. Toole was himself a singular person: a gifted scholar, a witty presence, and a troubled mind; and as a result, his protagonist is perfectly drawn for his project, while all of the other characters that Toole created are equally vibrant.