Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces
US: Mar 2012
As an admirer of A Confederacy of Dunces when it appeared (in mass-market Grove paperback for me), the little I found that was marketed back then about John Kennedy Toole tended towards the tortured artist. Walker Percy’s promotion of his fellow Southern Catholic (if, being obviously of Irish descent, cradle and not convert) helped launch Toole’s novel as if he was a figure as odd as Ignatius J. Reilly, his memorably offensive and irascibly brilliant protagonist. Toole’s suicide in 1969 at 31, and the long delay before the novel was championed and won the Pulitzer in 1981, became associated with Toole’s failure to get his novel published.
Cory MacLauchlin corrects this misattribution. He separates the novel’s fate in publishing from that of its author three years later. He handles the coverage of Toole in the “popular media” and places it against the legacy that his mother took on of protecting her son’s reputation. He notes the sympathy of the critics who found in Toole’s tragedy a ready myth. He removes blame from Simon and Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb; he does not speculate, as many have, about Toole’s alleged homosexuality.
Necessarily, he patiently delves into the mental illness which perhaps, left undiagnosed, hastened Toole’s inability to cope. Confronted with his demanding mother Thelma and his namesake father’s own decline, Toole could not endure the future. He came back from Puerto Rico where he had taught Army draftees. The freedom he had in New York City during grad school, in traveling, in teaching, was contrasted with his family and his responsibility. He looked at his parents; he left after his Christmas break from teaching. The road trip through the South appears mysterious. But, two months later as Mardi Gras came and went, apparently on the way back towards New Orleans, he ended his life.
As a fellow English instructor at a perhaps less-heralded institution (as am I), MacLauchlin finds a match in Toole. Those of us who teach others how to read and write better in modest classrooms understand the challenges and the satire inherent in these daily duties. (As an aside, it shows how talented Toole was—without finishing a Ph.D. at Columbia, he was offered a professorship, at 22, at Hunter College.) The correspondence and the mimicry about his earnest or hapless peers recall Flannery O’Connor (even if he did not enter her house alas, on his last journey, contrary to rumor); the academic send-ups of his medievalist colleague Bobby Byrne who teaches Boethius to every class, even frosh comp, certainly shows how Toole found ready humor and a model for Byrne and his New Orleans misfits who populated his fiction, his work, and his leisure in his hometown.
Toole could be cruel; MacLauchlin quotes, for instance, from a letter to his parents insulting two “haystacks”: the “gray-white, sandy, freckled, powdery” skins and awful dinner from the skeletal, “appalling” parents of his fellow instructor. McCauchlin notes how sustaining Ignatius Reilly took a tool on the novelist. His own arrogance as he balanced military assignments and mundane teaching with investing so much energy into what became far too late a cult novel demonstrates the uneasy relationships he had with others, male and female, and the frustrations with modern life endured by him and his colleagues and creations.
The biographer takes the novelist on his own terms. Drawn from five years of archival research and enhanced by many photos, this merges a straightforward account of his restless life with his swerves between confidence and despair. As a “self-marginalized intellectual”, Toole seems to have inherited some of his parents’ ambition (his father for school, his mother for the stage) along with the thwarting of early promise. Raised in the off-beat New Orleans scene, Tulane, bohemian and Beats-era New York, and Army life in Puerto Rico shaped him. The novel he started in 1963 drew his friends and experiences into his fiction. Inextricably, its fate overshadowed his own journey, paranoia grew, and he ended his suffering on a back road, at the end of March 1969, outside Biloxi.
MacLauchlin tells the story efficiently, if at times with his own overly effusive prose championing his subject. After all, the absurd and caricatured in Toole’s satire about a fat man in his native city obsessed with the decline of humanity since the Middle Ages lends itself to its own eccentricity. That inventive quirk is why we remember Toole and his preening, overbearing, and defiantly literate creations today.
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