It was the publishing event of 1980: the release of the only known novel by a brilliant but unknown, previously unpublished New Orleans writer, dead by his own hand more than a decade earlier.
John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” finally saw the light of day as the result of the indefatigable efforts of his devoted mother and her successful enlistment of the great Louisiana author Walker Percy as a critical ally.
Centered on one of the great eccentric characters of American literature, the geeky medievalist New Orleans hotdog vendor Ignatius Reilly, the novel was described by Kirkus Reviews as “a masterpiece of character comedy,” “almost stroboscopic: brilliant, relentless, delicious, perhaps even classic.”
Yet having been published from the author’s last draft but without extensive editorial input, it was not perfect, as perceived by a Chicago Tribune critic who called it “an exorcism, a cry nobody heard.” In 1981, however, the Pulitzer Prize committee deemed it worthy enough to receive its award for fiction, only the second time that prize had gone to a posthumously published work.
Cory MacLauchlin, author of the new Toole biography “Butterfly in the Typewriter,” deduces that, “Yes, ‘Confederacy’ had its problems, reviewers admitted,” but so had other recent major releases, and “those books, they seemed to say, didn’t give me half the enjoyment ‘Confederacy’ did.”
The proof is in the pudding: flawed or not, “Confederacy” has never gone out of print, and it is often included in lists of best American novels. But the key to its success is not simply that it is “the quintessential New Orleans novel”—in fact, MacLauchlin emphasizes that that great, inimitable city is the book’s central character—but that, the biographer says, it “exceeds the confines of regionalism.”
Given that Toole’s mother, Thelma, destroyed key primary documents that she thought might impugn her son’s character—including his suicide note—and that MacLauchlin has buttressed his narrative with fresh interviews with some of the last individuals close to his subject, “Butterfly in the Typewriter” is as close to unraveling the enigma of the often-mysterious John Kennedy Toole as we are ever likely to read, and his story makes for an engrossing read.
MacLauchlin has the further virtue of being himself a creative writer who understands that fiction, while drawing from an author’s life, is not necessarily therefore autobiographical. He believes those who have identified the character Reilly as the author’s alter ego—largely because Toole himself was a medievalist—are off the mark. Rather, Reilly is a synthesis, modeled on Toole’s good friend Bobby Byrne, “a New Orleans character almost too much to take, the ironies and absurdities layered into his larger-than-life existence. The contradictions of his bizarre clothes and his demeanor of sophistication made him ripe for the plucking.”
MacLauchlin also challenges a couple versions of Toole’s life, dismissing, for example, Nevils and Hardy’s assessment in “Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole” that the author suffered from a repressed personality and was a closeted homosexual. MacLauchlin grants that Toole had a complicated relationship with his often-overprotective mother, but without psychobabble or gobbledygook he lays out the case that Toole suffered from paranoid schizophrenia; in fact, his condition perhaps made his talent too fragile for the bruising requirements of revising a work for publication.
Thereby, MacLauchlin also lets off the hook Simon and Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb, whom Thelma Toole castigated until the end of her life as the villain in her son’s writing career. MacLauchlin reviews the correspondence between author and editor and fairly demonstrates that Gottlieb was encouraging and patient with Toole, and while suggesting significant changes were necessary in the draft of “Confederacy” expressed confidence Toole could handle them.
Toole simply seemed at a loss as to how to do so, and if unwilling, unable to seek out any alternative publisher; so he set the manuscript aside, though obviously not without serious damage to his psyche. His path to suicide bears some comparison to the earlier example of Ross Lockridge, author of “Raintree County,” who while achieving publication of that leonine historical novel was badly used by editorial compromises he thought undermined the integrity of his work; his decline and death are brilliantly described in son Larry’s “Shade of the Raintree.”
But by no means is all bleakness in “Butterfly in the Typewriter.” MacLauchlin communicates Toole’s often ebullient personality, records Toole’s many friendships and documents his scholarly triumphs; if the work he did to support himself often wore on his patience, he also seems to have been a frequently inspiring college instructor in both New York City and Louisiana. And like Toole himself, MacLauchlin is sensible enough to keep bringing Toole’s New Orleans heritage and environment front and center.
And while Toole’s ego may have been tragically fragile, his talent was inspiringly insistent. MacLauchlin captures the story of the writing of “Confederacy,” achieved during a U.S. Army tour in Puerto Rico while teaching English to young recruits. He composed his draft passionately but systematically, in off-duty hours, on a borrowed typewriter, his one significant speed bump the untimely death of the American president with whom he coincidentally shared his Christian name.
Thus a thousand miles from home, “one Sunday morning in 1963 (Toole) found the meaning for which he had searched for years. … from the recesses of memory, that immense catalog of personalities he had gathered over the past two decades opened.” The result is a contribution to American literature that even his death could not eradicate; that triumph is ably and inspiringly documented here. (Martin Northway)
“Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’”
By Cory MacLauchlin
Da Capo Press, 335 pages plus 14 pages of photographs, $26