An American tragedy. A lifetime of rejection broke John Kennedy Toole. But his aged mother believed in his talent, found a publisher for his novel and rescued his memory from oblivion

A Confederacy of Dunces

John Kennedy Toole <em>Penguin, 396pp, £4.99</em>

One of the many stories about the indifference of publishers concerns John Kennedy Toole of New Orleans, who killed himself in 1969. His New York publisher, the talented and exuberant Robert Gottlieb, after putting him through the hoops of successive revisions, let him know that he had lost interest in Toole's novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. "With all its wonderfulness," wrote Gottlieb, the book "does not have a reason. It isn't really about anything. And that's something no one can do anything about." Toole flew to New York to plead for his book, and was barred from the sanctum. He went on to do away with himself, five years later, having fallen out of fiction and into delusion and depression, and Robert Gottlieb went on to edit the New Yorker.

In the late 1970s Toole's mother remembered the manuscript, tried in vain to draw attention to it, and then sent it to the writer Walker Percy, who was teaching at a nearby university. He liked what he read. It was published and widely praised. In this country, it became a King Penguin, and has now been reissued by Penguin as one of a shortlist of favoured titles of the century. Quite a turn-up for the book.

It does have a reason, and it is about something, if not several things. It is about John Kennedy Toole. It is about democracy - and alienation - in America. It has in it the American South; it belongs to the Southern literary heritage of the excluded and the eccentric, the gothic and the grotesque.

Big, fat, billowing, bellowing Ignatius Reilly stars with Mother Reilly in an opera of the New Orleans streets; here is the coloratura din of a Canal Street bohemia, with Ignatius the loudest of the pack, and the most ornate. He bursts on the book in his ear-flapped hunting cap (to prevent head colds), his spacious, draughty trousers, soothing his torments with their ambient airs, his plaid shirt and muffler, the desert boots of the free-spirit 1960s. Eerie blue and yellow eyes peer superciliously over the hedge of a black moustache.

He is accosted one day outside a department store by a cop, and defended by a silly old sod who fears a "Communiss" conspiracy, and by the mother for whom Reilly has been waiting under the clock, and who snatches the lute string with which he's been inadvertently lashing the lawman, who then rounds on the silly old sod. "Let that old man alone, you dirty cop," shrieks a woman. "He's prolly somebody's grampaw." The old man confirms this: "I got six granchirren all studying with the sisters. Smart, too." The book is off to its zany start, with Reilly's graduate's arias mired in his neighbour's lumpen mispronunciations. Most of the cast is already on parade.

Ignatius is into lutes. He is a man of learning, a medievalist whose outfit is in abstruse accord with the theological and geometrical standards of his delightful Middle Ages. He is preoccupied with the philosopher Boethius and his wheel of fortune, spun by a croupier goddess largely indifferent to Ignatius's welfare. He can't bear the modern world he eagerly watches on television and film. The masses are a Dunciad, a symphony of loony tunes audited by this rogue elephant. His talents are not prized by the masses, and he has to turn his hand to working in a pants factory and trundling a hot-dog trolley.

In a later life - had he inhabited a later decade - Ignatius would possibly have stepped from the closet as gay. His camp-operatic love-hate relations with Mother Reilly speak of a time when homosexuals were the enemy within, and eloquence served them both as code and as a means of display. His dealings with his liberated friend, the right-on-correct Myrna Minkoff, up there in the Bronx, support this impression of a possible gayness: the two of them exchange letters of mutual instruction and recrimination, an old world tussling with a new; and it takes a long time for the "natural impulses" he mentions to scream for relief, if they ever do.

The novel as it stands is equivocal about gays. Ignatius storms at one, while indulging the gay-power fantasy of a Homintern establishment, all sequins and feathers, banning its bombs, having nicked them from the fascists, and settling its quarrels in the redecorated men's room of the United Nations. Ignatius's natural impulses are suspended in irony and uncertainty, and so, for the reader of the novel, are Ken Toole's - neither his sexuality nor his Catholicism is easy to interpret. A full biography is said to be on the stocks. Meanwhile an interesting recent magazine piece in the Guardian by Will Hodgkinson suggested that Ignatius contains not only Toole himself, as no one could fail to suppose, but a medievalist male friend of his and his own possessive mother.

This is the 1960s, and bombs - or, as one mispronunciation has it, bums - are a big issue. Students are on the march but gays are only half out. There's plenty of old-fashioned ostracism and clandestinity in the city of eccentrics and exotics, gamblers and graft, where this Falstaffian Boethian, unmoved by what's left of the local jazz, finds himself stranded. The sense of the coloured population which is suggested in the novel might seem incorrectly old- fashioned, too. The novel's principal black has been praised as no Rastus, no black-and-white minstrel. This is to overstate. But the black in question communicates his fair share of the humour in this very funny book.

The humour is in general, as whites say, black, and everybody catches it, including ancient Miss Trixie, who hangs about Levy Pants. The absentee owner's wife, who pursues her husband with victim scams designed to shame him into something or other, rescues Miss Trixie from the factory, fixes her up with a sable wig and has her telling people that she is a very attractive woman. The octogenarian Southern belle counts here as an aspect of modern America, of the modern America that Boethius would have had no time for.

At the climax of Ignatius Reilly's struggle with the powers of darkness and crassness, Fortuna relents and delivers to his side the Myrna minx, having flushed her "from a subway tube, from some picket line, from the pungent bed of some Eurasian existentialist, from the hands of some epileptic Negro Buddhist, from the verbose midst of a group therapy session". Myrna is a touching person, and their flight is made to look a little romantic. But these are not plausible lovers, and the resolution seems contrived. Toole's book is a series of richly written farces and fiascos - light on development. Not for the only time in modern literature, the autobiographical novelist - by definition, still alive at the time of writing - is stuck for an ending.

As the lovers leave, Ignatius is careful to collect his notes and jottings, which mustn't fall into the hands of his mother. Mrs Reilly has been "enjoying the questionable attentions of a fascist" (a period term, as 1960s as desert boots, which refers here to the old sod from the department store) and behaving like a very attractive woman. "She may make a fortune from them," growls Ignatius of his tablets, keen to fight off another of Fortuna's blows. And so, in life, she eventually did.

Paranoid Ignatius is the creation of a man who came to think that conspirators and excluders were on his case - as indeed they were. This is a novel which might seem to anticipate what happened after it was written, and which might perhaps have ended better with the rejection by some publisher of Ignatius's manuscript material. Ken Toole's manuscript went on to a happy ending, but Ken Toole did not, and it isn't a thing you expect of Ignatius.

Novelists and other authorities have been heard over the years to claim that the novel form is finished: but someone must have forgotten to warn John Kennedy Toole. He wrote this one as if his life depended on it, as indeed it did. A freakish city gave birth to the sort of freak who writes memorable books. Not everyone responds without misgivings to the life of this particular Reilly, to his burlesques and grand speeches, his pearls before swine. But the people of Toole's home town welcomed it when they got to read it. A bronze statue of Ignatius has been raised by apologetic businessmen, beneath the clock, on the site of the D H Holmes department store they have erased, and there could well be locals who have begun to mistake it for a statue of his author. Ignatius and his author may be on their way to showing up on Mardi Gras floats as twin tourist attractions, since lots of other people, nowhere near the Mississippi delta, have welcomed the book too, as Anthony Burgess did when it first appeared. Not everyone likes it, but many do, and it took a publisher to think it unpublishable.

Karl Miller is a former literary editor of the "New Statesman". His most recent book is "Dark Horses" (Picador, £16.99)