BEYOND THE VALLEY OF A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES John Kennedy Toole

An impressive new
biography by Cory MacLauchlin attempts
to fill in the details regarding the late novelist’s life and eventual suicide.

 

BY SAM BALTES

Since first being published in
1980, it’s hard to tell which has amassed more fame, A Confederacy of Dunces, or the tragic suicide of its author, John
Kennedy Toole. Over the years Confederacy has been lauded a satirical
masterpiece, and the best New Orleans
book ever written. Its admirers range from Adult-Swim stars Tim and Eric to
fratire luminary Tucker Max, and the book’s endlessly quotable dialogue,
unforgettable characters, and lacerating wit have cemented its status as one of
the greatest literary works of the 20th century. Despite Confederacy’s unwavering popularity, John Kennedy Toole has largely remained an elusive
figure, but in the new biography Butterfly in the Typewriter (Da Capo Press), journalist Cory
MacLauchlin provides an unprecedented, circumspect look at Toole’s
life.    

 

        While
Toole’s fate is well known, the details of his youth have rarely been
discussed. Born in New Orleans,
Toole was thrust into an awkward family dynamic consisting of an overbearing
mother and a mentally aloof father. The former was convinced that her son
was destined for greatness to the extent that she lived vicariously through
him. These feelings were not entirely unwarranted; as a child Toole scored as a
borderline genius on an I.Q test, skipped two grades, and was recognized by his
peers and teachers for his capacious intellect. Considering the scarcity of
resources to draw from for this period, it’s impressive that MacLauchlin was
able to provide such a detailed account of Toole’s youth.

 

        As
a teenager, Toole was enamored by the eccentrics of New Orleans, and relished walking around the
city “absorbing the flavors of the different neighborhood… creating fictional
characters” which he would work into comedic skits for his friends. It was
during this period that he wrote his first novel, Neon Bible, which he
submitted to a writing contest only for it to lose. This failure had a devastating
effect on Toole, and first displayed his inability to cope with rejection.

 

        Many
of the people Toole met in his youth served as inspiration for characters in Confederacy,
and it’s interesting to learn how he catalogued specific personalities for
future use. Toole borrowed the name Irene
Reilly from his friend’s neighbor, and after briefly working in a
clothing factory and observing the bizarre behavior of other employees, he had
material for Levy Pants.
Finding out facts such as this make the biography a rewarding read, and it’s
fascinating to get a glimpse into Toole’s thought process. 

 

 

 

 

        After
tiring of New Orleans, Toole left for Columbia University, but despite distinguishing
himself there, financial constraints, familial obligations, and disillusionment
with grad school resulted in him returning to the South, where he subsequently
taught at UL Lafayette. During his tenure there, he met a polymath medievalist
who was infatuated with hotdogs. These personality traits would later manifest
themselves in Confederacy’s Ignatius
Reilly. Shortly after this, Toole was drafted into the Army and ordered
to Puerto Rico to teach English, and it was
there he penned the bulk of Confederacy on a borrowed typewriter.  

 

        Upon
being discharged, Toole sent the manuscript
to Simon and Schuster, which prompted
an awkward correspondence with Robert Gottlieb. Since the publication of Confederacy,
Gottlieb has been made out to be a nefarious editor (Toole’s mother
labeled him responsible for her son’s suicide) who valued profit over artistic
merit, but MacLauchlin reveals that he fully supported Toole, and went to
unusual lengths to reassure him about his novel. Though Gottlieb loved Confederacy,
he considered it devoid of meaning and hopelessly unmarketable.
Gottlieb urged Toole to revise the book in order to facilitate
publication, and also guaranteed Toole that he would not abandon him. Despite
this encouragement, Gottlieb’s criticism eviscerated Toole, and indirectly
served as a catalyst for his mental breakdown.

 

        It’s
difficult to read about Toole’s last days. Coming from a family with a history
of mental illness (his father went prematurely senile, and other relatives had
taken their lives or been committed) he was predisposed towards instability,
and MacLauchlin’s research shows that he displayed traits of a paranoid
schizophrenic.

 

        While
the exact circumstances of his death remain hazy (his mother burned his suicide
note), MacLauchlin dispels much of the ambiguity that has surrounded
Toole’s fate. Succumbing to depression, and shaken by the rejection of his
novel, Toole lost touch with reality, retreated from society, and was
overwhelmed by delusional paranoia. The last months of his life were spent on a
solitary roadtrip that culminated with his suicide.

 

        The
last portion of the book details Confederacy’s road to
publication, and its eventual rise to fame. While this was necessary, the
section goes on slightly too long, and most of the material dealing with
Toole’s mother could have been omitted. One of the book’s flaws is that
MacLauchlin intermittently inserts sections dealing with socio-cultural events
that transpired throughout Toole’s life, and while these parts aren’t exactly
filler, they sometimes read too textbookish.

 

        Due
to the scarcity of resources and challenging subject, Butterfly in the
Typewriter
was a difficult biography to write, but MacLauchlin makes Toole
come alive by providing illuminating glimpses into his life and clearing up
much of the fog surrounding his death. While an all encompassing
biography of Toole’s life will never be written, this is the closest anyone
will get.

 

 

Leave a Reply