The story of John Kennedy Toole and A Confederacy of Dunces is a publishing legend. A writer of unfilled promise, Toole committed suicide in 1969. More than a decade later, his indomitable mother managed to get a book that had been deemed unpublishable, published—and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. This tragic episode is often carted out as a cautionary tale about the vagaries and subjectivity of the book trade, but as Cory MacLauchlin reveals in Butterfly in the Typewriter, the real story is far more complicated and far more interesting.
Toole’s posthumous legacy was artfully constructed and carefully guarded by his mother, Thelma, who despite her propensity for preservation, destroyed the most vital of documents—her son’s suicide note. So MacLauchlin relies mainly on literary detective work to reconstruct the life of this troubled writer. Toole was born in 1937 in New Orleans, the eccentric city that would serve as his fictional terrain. A highly intelligent child, he skipped two grades and graduated from high school at 16. Toole went to Tulane on a full scholarship, jettisoning his original plans of becoming an engineer to study English. He moved to New York for graduate school at Columbia, then returned to Louisiana to teach.
Not content with his notable academic accomplishments, Toole burned to write fiction. As MacLauchlin convincingly shows, Toole was a keen observer, and as far back as childhood was noticing the idiosyncrasies of the Big Easy locals who would populate his work. At 16 he wrote a promising novel, The Neon Bible, which lay forgotten until resurrected in the wake of his belated success. But it was A Confederacy of Dunces, written in his early 20s, that would become both his obsession and his undoing. It has been well documented how he sent the manuscript to Robert Gottlieb, a nurturing editor at Simon & Schuster, who carried on a thoughtful two-year correspondence with Toole about the book, then ultimately rejected it.
Toole took that rejection hard, and it is an open-ended question whether it triggered his suicide. In retrospect, one wonders why he fixated on Gottlieb and did not try to place the book elsewhere. The answer may lie in Toole’s spiral into madness—paranoia and depression that MacLauchlin probes with compassion and respect. Toole was, perhaps, betrayed by his own brilliance.
The final chapters of Butterfly in the Typewriter are Thelma’s, as she takes up the cause of getting her late son’s book published. A colorful character in her own right, the septuagenarian alienated many friends and relatives in the process, and publicly derided Gottlieb who, to his credit, stayed out of the fray. Her fierce control over her son’s legacy may have given us this classic, but it also means there will always be unanswered questions about Toole’s life and death.
Despite his own admiration for Toole’s work, MacLauchlin never loses sight of the fact that many readers hate A Confederacy of Dunces, an imperfect book that is perhaps an apt reflection of its creator’s imperfect life. This highly readable biography occasionally makes some questionable, or at least not provable, leaps (MacLauchlin seems particularly vehement in rejecting suggestions that Toole struggled with latent homosexuality), yet overall it does an impressive job filling in the gaps and helping readers better understand this complex writer.