Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The story of the way Toole’s novel came before the public is a strange one, involving frustration, tragedy, and posthumous triumph. Toole completed the book in 1963, but, after extended negotiations with one publisher came to nothing in 1966, he made no further attempt to publish it. In 1969, Toole committed suicide. Eventually, through the persistence of his mother, the novel was brought to the attention of novelist Walker Percy, who secured its publication in 1980. The book became a best-seller, an almost unanimous success with critics, a nominee for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize.

It has been praised for its comic structure, its brilliant use of dialogue, and its evocation of the setting and language of New Orleans. Most of all, critics have found it extremely amusing. They have hailed Toole as a comic genius, comparing his work favorably to that of the greatest comic and satiric writers, including Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, and Miguel de Cervantes. Critics have regretted that Toole’s career was so tragically short. A Confederacy of Dunces has been recognized as a unique comic masterpiece, a book that successfully combines high and low comedy, realism and fantasy, with irresistible high spirits and sheer narrative drive.