Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sensitive biography of troubled Dunces author

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In 1976, a New Orleans woman, Thelma Toole, barged into the office of southern author Walker Percy with a manuscript by her son, who had committed suicide seven years earlier.

Fans of A Confederacy of Dunces know the rest of the story. The comic novel about a flatulent, loathsome, self-styled medievalist, Ignatius J. Reilly, was eventually published. It achieved critical acclaim, became a bestseller and won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Its author, John Kennedy Toole, was hailed as a lost genius and has come to be called "the bard of New Orleans."

American academic Cory MacLauchlin specializes in Southern literature and the history and culture of New Orleans. He has done extensive research in the Toole archives at Tulane University and conducted wide-ranging interviews with Toole's friends and colleagues. The result, Butterfly in the Typewriter, a balanced and sensitive biography of Toole, is very much the stuff of movies.

Toole was born in New Orleans in 1937 and asphyxiated himself near Biloxi, Miss., in 1969.

His mother, Thelma, was a strong-willed woman with an overpowering personality from an old New Orleans family; his father, John, was a car salesman.

The Toole family finances were always precarious and, sadly, John was a victim of mental illness, which put further strain on the family. Young "Kenny" felt the pressure of poverty and became financial supporter to his parents.

Thelma doted on and spoiled her only child. She nurtured his imagination and intellect and believed "there was an aura of distinction about him" and that he was destined for greatness. Kenny was not meant to fail.

He was active in drama and always enjoyed being the life of the party, entertaining his many friends and family by mimicking the accents and mannerisms of New Orleans' myriad colourful personalities. This helped lay the basis for the motley collection of characters found in his novel.

In 1961, while working towards a PhD in English at Columbia University, he was drafted into the U.S. army. Stationed in Puerto Rico, he was assigned to teach English to Spanish-speaking draftees.

He quickly rose in the ranks and in his free time began his novel. He wrote at a feverish pace, and the pounding of his typewriter was heard late into the night.

After his discharge he returned to New Orleans to take on the tasks of looking after his parents and finishing his book, Toole accepted a teaching position at a private Catholic school, where he was a popular instructor.

As MacLauchlin writes, Toole's life "had been a continual progression toward achieving some stature of greatness in either academics or fiction."

He takes his bio's title from a line in a poem that Toole wrote in high school. It refers to literary critics who can crush the poet and his delicate sensibility with a stroke of their typewriter key.

In 1964, Toole sent a manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces to Simon & Schuster and waited for the acceptance that never came. Toole's editor, the noted Robert Gottlieb, supported and encouraged the aspiring author. Gottlieb was conflicted on how to improve the manuscript, but he never disparaged Toole over the two years in which they corresponded.

But Toole's life was spiralling downward. This was more than perceived personal failure, conflicted sexuality, the tedium of teaching or the trials of looking after ailing parents. Mental illness was common in Thelma's family and John suffered from paranoia.

Toole suffered from debilitating headaches and depression; paranoid delusions controlled his life. Toole's behaviour became increasingly more erratic as he gradually lost grasp of reality. He believed his students were stalking him, that the publisher had stolen his manuscript and that conspiracies surrounded him.

On Jan. 20, 1969, after a fight with his mother, he quit his job, quit his family and quit his life as he drove away on a final journey.

He never knew that his mother did not let him down and that Percy was convinced he was a comic genius reminiscent of Dickens, Cervantes, Chaucer and Rabelais. Moreover, untold numbers of readers over the last 30 years have agreed.

Thelma destroyed Kenny's suicide note, so, as MacLauchlin writes, we will never know his final thoughts.

 

Winnipeg writer Ian Stewart balances absurdity and teaching at Cecil Rhodes School.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 J9

History

Updated on Saturday, May 26, 2012 at 7:39 AM CDT: Corrects that book's author was male; adds fact box

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