John Barth is perhaps not as well known as Pynchon or Gaddis but he is one of the giants of postmodern fiction. His reputation is largely built on his short story collection Lost in the Funhouse and on his 1967 essay The Literature of Exhaustion, in which he argued that literary realism was "used up".
The Sot-Weed Factor, Barth's third novel, was 50 years old in 2010, though the version in print these days is the author's 1967 revision, which removed around 50 pages. The book, which satirises the picaresque novels of the 18th century, follows Ebenezer Cooke, a young English poet, on his adventures in London and in the colonies in America.
Cooke is given the title of poet laureate of Maryland by Charles Calvert, the proprietor of Maryland, who - assuming it was him and not an impostor - may not have the power to bestow such a title in the first place.
Impostors figure prominently in the novel as Cooke is drawn into the complex politics of Maryland and the surrounding colonies. Forced to leave London after a row over his failure to pay a prostitute with whom he didn't actually have sex, Cooke is hunted by pirates, tricked out of his money by his manservant, loses his father's estate and becomes embroiled in a nascent uprising by native Americans and slaves.
Throughout all this, Cooke's friend and former tutor Henry Burlingame continually resurfaces in various guises and it's seldom clear whether or not he can be trusted. Is Burlingame working for Calvert or against him? Is he fighting the trade in drugs and prostitution or actually running it? And was he forced to leave his post as tutor because he seduced Ebenezer's sister, Anna?
While piling one improbable twist upon another unlikely turn Barth also relays his own, hilarious and deeply irreverent, version of the story of John Smith and Pocahantas. Burlingame is seeking John Smith's diary because he is convinced that it holds the secret of his ancestry, meanwhile Maryland's corrupt hope to keep the document hidden because, written on its reverse, is the evidence of government corruption. This metafictional flourish - the present literally written on the back of the past - is one of the few hints as to the direction Barth's fiction would take.
Barth adopts the language of the era flawlessly - to my ear, at least - but does so without sacrificing readability. He also manages to create a central character who is clearly a pompous fool without making him unsympathetic. Cooke has many faults but most of his problems are the result of his innocence - symbolised by his virginity, which he seeks to hold onto for as long as possible. Cooke's determination to remain innocent causes most of his problems.
The Sot-Weed Factor is filled with scatalogical humour, bizarre sexual antics and some glorious set pieces - the eating contest to the death is a particular highlight. It's a brilliant novel and one of my favourites of the year.