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BEST OF THE SOUTH BOOK REVIEW: A New Biography of John Kennedy Toole

Ignatius Screamed

Looking for the real John Kennedy Toole.

All cartoons by John Kennedy Toole from the Tulane Hullabaloo.

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, 2012

Is A Confederacy of Dunces even a good book?

Opening line: "A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head." Something's wrong there. A head is not a balloon.

Nor is anyone's tongue flabby, though a few pages on, the man with the balloon head sends a "flabby pink tongue" across his mustache, gathering cake crumbs.

Nor is "Ignatius screamed" an appropriate dialogue tag to use nineteen times. Nor is it really very wise for a white Southerner writing in 1963 to go for laughs via the rendering of African-American dialect (there are a lot of ooo-wee's in this book). And on and on—so much of it is over the top, in questionable taste, in bad taste, cartoonish, unrestrained, and distorted. It's a novel broken out in hives.

If in the early 1980s you were a young person in the South trying to learn how to write, John Kennedy Toole's novel might have looked like the latest, greatest bad influence. That it won a Pulitzer in 1981 was part of the problem—the Southern bookshelf already sagged with highly decorated writers who are deadly to imitate. Faulkner: There is no surer way to sound like a jackass. Flannery O'Connor: Thanks to her, no more prosthetic limbs in your stories forevermore. There is all this weight of grandness—the gothic storylines, the round vowels. A kid simply trying to learn to write might have found a friendlier model in someone like Raymond Carver, whose striking virtues are restraint, spareness, and a very prominent quietness. No balloon-like body parts here, and few exclamation points. The prose suggests a method of subtraction: Write a page, then cross most of it out. It's like cleaning your garage every morning. It's hygienic. There's a safety in it, too, because the student of subtraction is less and less likely to commit an offense against taste. If he overdoes it—if he subtracts too much—well, the extreme result is silence, which is no offense to anyone.

Okay, I'm wrong. But you can't learn everything at once. And if you were this kid who read A Confederacy of Dunces twenty years ago and judged it to be too much in every way, I urge you to read it again, because it's magnificent. Yes, it is loud, and there's a theatricality—the characters shout at one another like actors in the days before microphones, and their features are outlined with black pencil so as to be read from the very back row, through cigar smoke. You won't learn restraint from this book. What you can do is laugh at the sentences.

Mrs. Reilly stood in the hall looking at the do not disturb sign printed on a sheet of Big Chief paper and stuck to the door by an old flesh-colored Band-aid.
"Ignatius, let me in there, boy," she screamed.

Reluctantly, he does.

"It smells terrible in here."
"Well, what do you expect? The human body, when confined, produces certain odors which we tend to forget in this age of deodorants and other perversions. Actually, I find the atmosphere of this room rather comforting. Schiller needed the scent of apples rotting in his desk in order to write. I, too, have my needs. You may remember that Mark Twain preferred to lie supinely in bed while composing those rather dated and boring efforts which contemporary scholars try to prove meaningful. Veneration of Mark Twain is one of the roots of our current intellectual stalemate."
"If I know it was like this, I'd been in here long ago."

Ignatius is never funnier than when he is complaining about Mark Twain, "that dreary fraud."

It's instructive to see Toole kicking back at a writer he clearly took so much from (the Crusade for Moorish Dignity scene in Confederacy is only a couple steps away from the spectacle of The King's Cameleopard in Huckleberry Finn). Lesson: Influence is complicated.

And there is more for a writer to learn from Toole's book. Contrast, for example. The dozen major characters talk and talk, and each one sounds completely different from the others. Can you get that from Raymond Carver?

Then there is the largeness of the book. It may be that there is a kind of realism that can only be done in miniature—the interior of the writer's own apartment, for example, or his marriage, or his mind. In satire, Toole found a way to include much more of life. Sometimes reading his book is like walking through a city—you keep overhearing noisy conversations. The people arguing with one another are gay and straight, white and black: the unemployed rich and the lazy poor, the fat and the scrawny. It's a method of addition. Toole keeps letting them in, even though it might have been simpler in 1963 to take what we could now refer to as the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad line: "We don't have homosexuals...."

And yes, the book ridicules gay people with enthusiasm. But all the characters get that treatment. The brainy females, the celibate males. The devout black churchgoers and the Jewish businessmen. The cops. Even the dead.

The one element that doesn't get twisted in order to be made fun of is New Orleans: its streets, buildings, river, and weather. Toole rendered his home city with affection. As here:

Patrolman Mancuso inhaled the moldy scent of the oaks and thought, in a romantic aside, that St. Charles Avenue must be the loveliest place in the world. From time to time he passed the slowly rocking streetcars that seemed to be leisurely moving toward no special destination, following their route through the old mansions on either side of the avenue. Everything looked so calm, so prosperous, so unsuspicious.

Toole did not spend his whole life in New Orleans—only most of it. After one visit home to Louisiana, he wrote a friend, "It is certainly one of the most beautiful cities in the world, although how the people who live there managed to make it so remains a mystery to me." He kept coming back, almost until the end.

The story of Toole's life has always hung over his novel. The bare facts were laid out in Walker Percy's foreword to the 1980 first edition of A Confederacy of Dunces: Toole wrote the book; he failed to publish it; he killed himself.

Years later, his mother came across the manuscript in a box. She somehow persuaded Percy to take a look, and to his surprise, he loved it. The novel finally found a publisher, and it sold a million copies.

It's hard not to try to connect these few facts. Was the failure to publish also the reason for Toole's suicide? And how much of himself did Toole put into the novel? Are Ignatius and Toole the same person?

The answer to that last question is no. For one thing, after Toole graduated from Tulane, he left New Orleans for New York, where he studied at Columbia. Later, he taught English for the Army in Puerto Rico. Unlike Ignatius, he got around.

Here's another surprise: When Toole sent his novel to Simon & Schuster, the reception it got was actually enthusiastic. Robert Gottlieb praised the book but thought it needed more work. Gottlieb had edited Catch-22; his opinion meant something. Toole began revising but somehow hit a wall. Gottlieb never cut him off, and, in fact, continued to encourage Toole, but somehow the book wound up abandoned in that box where his mother found it.

Not getting his book published must have been a blow, but in the end something else was going on. Students at the small Catholic college where Toole was teaching began to complain about his bitter classroom monologues. He told friends that his novel had been stolen, and that the government had implanted a device in his brain. He was sick. He died from confusion, not rejection.

Any biography of Toole, therefore, not only has to tell the story of his life; it has to correct the legend. It also ought to show how Toole's novel draws on his life, and how it doesn't.

Cory MacLauchlin's new biography, Butterfly in the Typewriter, does all of the above. The man who emerges is not a tortured artist but an urbane and funny person, a quick mimic, a good dancer, and (until things reached their worst) an engaging teacher. Colleagues loved him. He dressed in a jacket and tie. His favorite writer was Evelyn Waugh.

In A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius orchestrates a labor uprising at the Levy Pants factory: MacLauchlin helpfully reveals that Toole also worked a summer job at a clothing factory. We learn that, in imagining Ignatius's lady friend, Myrna Minkoff, Toole drew on his "aggressive, pseudo-intellectual, 'liberal' girl students" at Hunter College in Manhattan—students whom he also (in case this isn't clear from the above quotation) liked immensely. We also meet the guy Ignatius was based on, a real-life devotee of Boethius and hot dogs named Bobby Byrne (Toole taught English with him at what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette—he was a friend, and a witness to Toole's grim slide into paranoia).

MacLauchlin's goal is "a biographical narrative in which Toole would recognize himself." He's positioning his book against an earlier biography, Ignatius Rising, written by René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy and published in 2001. MacLauchlin is certainly more conscientious with his sources: He cites them across thirty-eight pages of endnotes, whereas Nevils and Hardy acknowledge theirs but vaguely. But the big differences come down to a few stories. One that Nevils and Hardy include has "Tooley" hanging out with a blues band, getting high on Benzedrex inhalers, and playing tambourine in street performances. This image of Toole is difficult to reconcile with the detached, somewhat starchy image that other friends recall, but, of course, both can be true. According to Nevils and Hardy, Toole "traveled in many different circles and took care to see that none of them overlapped." We could view that as the rationalization of two overly credulous biographers, or we could view it as an important insight into human life.

But the biographies clash most pointedly on a rather sensational tale told by a man named Chuck Layton, whom Nevils and Hardy interviewed on tape. Layton claims to have met Toole in a bar in the French Quarter in 1967. According to the story, Toole took Layton to a boardinghouse where they drank and had sex. Later, Layton discovered that Toole owned the boardinghouse, and the residents were a sort of male harem that he kept. Layton knew Toole only as "John" but recognized him years later in the picture on the dust jacket of Confederacy.

It's a wild story and doesn't sound at all like the Toole his colleagues and school friends describe (the idea of his owning a boardinghouse may be the least plausible part of the story—as far as I can tell, he lived his whole life in rentals). On the other hand, when you take away this and half a dozen other bits of gossip that don't pass muster with MacLauchlin, you are left with a huge empty space where Toole's sex life ought to be. It is a difficult problem for a biographer since, after all, some portion of all gossip happens to be true.

We'll never know whether Toole would have recognized himself in a narrative of secret promiscuity. MacLauchlin is rightly skeptical of Layton's story (Layton is not the best witness—by his own admission, "His days and nights were planned around the acquisition and consumption of Scotch"). Still, MacLauchlin does go a little far sometimes in trying to refute the allegation. That a woman named Ellen once signed a letter to Toole with three I love you's does not in any way indicate that Toole wasn't gay. Hello?

Almost a separate biography is required for Thelma Ducoing Toole, John's crazy mother. God bless her, though, because without her, we wouldn't have Toole's book. In addition to Confederacy, she discovered one other novel her son had left in a box: The Neon Bible. This one Toole somehow managed to write, send off, and have rejected by the age of sixteen without his mother ever knowing a thing about it. Don't these two start to sound a lot like the mother and son in Confederacy—the son with his Big Chief pads full of "succinct passages" strewn all over the bedroom floor, the mother banned from the room? But they're not, of course. Thelma Toole taught elocution; Mrs. Reilly says "arthuritis." And Thelma's son, unlike Ignatius, kept his hair trimmed and parted on the left. At most, you might say that one pair is the negative image of the other. They had very much in common while also being entirely different.

One other mystery: In January of 1969, after arguing with his mother, Toole disappeared. It was March when he was found dead, neatly dressed, in his Chevelle just off Popps Ferry Road in Biloxi. Where he'd been all that time, no one knows. He had a tall stack of papers beside him on the front seat. According to Nevils and Hardy, Thelma Toole took the papers back to New Orleans and lost track of them; according to MacLauchlin, the sheriff's office took possession, and the papers were lost in Hurricane Camille. Either way, they're gone, and any questions they might have answered about Toole's private life—whom he loved, why he ran away, or what he was thinking just before he died—will stay unanswered.

MacLauchlin puts A Confederacy of Dunces reliably in context, showing what can be shown about its author. Toole remains, however, a writer who kept his inner world hidden. The great thing he left in Confederacy is not a confession, but a performance: a novel full of vivid speech, humor, and damp, human life.


ART: Cartoons by John Kennedy Toole from the Tulane Hullabaloo, 1956–57. Courtesy of the Louisiana Research Collection.

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