Monday, October 5, 2009

One of my favorite books (even though it's not by a British writer) is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The evocative New Orleans setting on Constantinople Street, the hilarious turns of phrase, and the larger-than-life character of Ignatius J. Reilly all come together in a comic masterpiece. I knew that the author had committed suicide at a young age, but I really didn't know much else about him. I was excited to see that several biographies have been published recently, including Ignatius Rising by Rene Pol Nevils & Deborah George Hardy.

John Kennedy Toole was the only child of Thelma and John Toole, born to the couple late in life. Ken, as he was known, quickly became the center of his obsessive mother's life. She was something of an odd character, known in the neighborhood for giving "elocution" lessons and singing and playing the piano for any visitors who might stop by. Mr. Toole, a car salesman, was totally dominated and overshadowed by his overbearing wife. Many people are quoted in the book as saying they had always thought Mrs. Toole was a widow when Ken was growing up. In fact, both parents outlived him.

Ken showed early brilliance (which is mother was eager to tell everyone about) and eventually earned several degrees. His adult life alternated with teaching positions while also working on a Ph.D. at Columbia. While in New York, he enjoyed big-city living, while at the same time feeling an unbearable pull back to New Orleans. His parents were elderly, his father showing signs of dementia, and he was their only means of support. Eventually, he decided to return south and possibly finish his degree there.

Unfortunately, he was unable to accomplish much of anything while living at home with his parents. His mother wanted Ken as a drinking buddy, and refused to allow him private time to write or study. He was rescued from this existence by being drafted. While in the army, he was stationed in Puerto Rico. He seems to have excelled at army life, at least in the beginning. Ken was fluent in Spanish, and was put in charge of a group of college graduates who were teaching the Puerto Rican recruits English. However, there really wasn't much work to do, so it was here, the authors believe, that Ken began writing what would eventually become A Confederacy of Dunces.

Although he dated some women during his high school and college days, the authors believe Ken was homosexual. There were flamboyant homosexuals in the same barracks as Ken, but he was very prudish and tended to remain aloof from them. His personal conflicts ended up costing him much good will, as he delayed in getting help for one of the homosexual soldiers who attempted suicide. After that incident, (although it was not reported in official channels) both Ken and the army lost enthusiasm for each other.

Back home in New Orleans after his army service, Ken started teaching at a private girl's college while living at home with his parents. It was at this time that he sent his manuscript out to Simon & Schuster, with the hopes of getting it published. Simon & Schuster was described as a "small, family-owned publishing house" in 1964. The novel came to the attention of senior editor Robert Gottlieb. There are many letters between Ken and Gottlieb that are included in the book. Gottlieb dithered for over two years over publishing the book. He kept giving vague rejections, such as the fact that the book didn't have "a real point" (this from someone who holds Thomas Pynchon up as a great novelist!) and that he liked the book, but didn't know how to fix it. Ken was alternately encouraged and deflated. Finally, after two years with no progress, Ken asked for the manuscript to be returned. He then placed it on top of his wardrobe, where it remained, more or less, for the rest of his life.

After his bitter disappointment at not getting the book published, Ken began to exhibit signs of mental illness. Whether it was all due to his lack of literary success is debatable, but he eventually withdrew money from his bank account and disappeared. Where he was during the last two months of his life has not been discovered. He was found in his car on March 26, 1969 having committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 32 years old.

His mother, for whom Ken had been the focus of her life, was completely broken by his death. She did not let his death diminish her view that he was one of the most brilliant, talented people who ever lived, however. When she heard that the author Walker Percy would be teaching a class in New Orleans, she showed up at his office with the manuscript and demanded he read it. Thus began the long and tenuous process of getting the book published. Without the single-mindedness and determination of Thelma, A Confederacy of Dunces would never have been published. At the same time, her abrasive personality and martyr complex offended and repelled everyone she dealt with. Even after the book was published (and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize), legal wranglings helped Thelma alienate even more people.

Although I knew a biography of someone who ultimately committed suicide wouldn't be a laugh riot, I was distressed to read just how dysfunctional John Kennedy Toole's life really was. Growing up with an overbearing mother he was unable to ever detach from, conflicted about his sexuality, and unsuccessful as a writer, Ken comes across as a sad and lonely character. Which makes his creation of Ignatius and his world all the more of an amazing achievement.

Final Verdict for Ignatius Rising: Four Gherkins, for providing a fascinating look into the mind of a troubled genius


About Me

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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