- - Friday, June 8, 2012

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, $26 352 pages

In the introduction to his exhaustive biography of New Orleans literary legend and posthumous Pulitzer Prize winner John Kennedy Toole, Cory MacLauchlin considers the question of whether John Kennedy Toole is a modernist or a Southern writer. Without realizing it, he unconsciously replicates the question that haunted Mr. Toole, as an author and a person, for his entire life. He defied easy categorization. Perhaps if he’d fit neatly into a type, he would have achieved fame even while he still drew breath.

As those who know anything about the odyssey to publication that Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” understood, the book never came close to being published while the author was alive. It took a herculean effort on the part of Toole’s mother to get the book into the hands of noted New Orleans legend Walker Percy and the Louisiana State University Press. Despite a great temptation, the author opted in his biography to “neither diagnose nor cast [Toole] in the mold of the tortured artist,” but to take the author on his own terms.

The book sets its initial scene at the height of the Cold War: 1963, a year when Toole was stationed in the U.S. Army at a Puerto Rico outpost, geographically distanced from and unburdened of the pressures he had in the Crescent City. An only child of a domineering mother and an infirm father, Toole spent most of his adult life attempting to make his own way even as his parents required his support. The significance of Puerto Rico, then, was that the island was, to borrow a phrase from Virginia Woolf, a “room of his own” for Toole, where he could explore the flights of fancy that made “A Confederacy of Dunces” perhaps the most epic comic novel of the 20th century, with stylistic debts to Miguel de Cervantes and Evelyn Waugh.

“Confederacy” was Toole’s second attempt at the novel form; his first, written at 16, was called “The Neon Bible,” which failed to win the literary contest for which it was penned. Toole never told his mother that he was writing this book. As she recalls, he never told her because “he didn’t want me to worry.”

Toole entered Tulane University at the age of 16, where he quickly distinguished himself as an academic superstar. Later, he developed a taste for the Big Apple, momentarily satisfied when he matriculated at Columbia University for graduate school in the late-1950s.

At that point, the Beats were fashionable, and Toole warmed to novels like the “The Subterraneans” by Jack Kerouac. Like Kerouac, he would die in 1969; both of them mama’s boys, for whom the literary life offered little but a premature exit.

But before Toole got to the exit ramp, he had some living to do. His first teaching post was a humble one: the newly integrated Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette.

There, he saw a “faculty composed of fiends and madmen … the fattest English faculty in the rural deep south.” He met characters like the medievalist and Boethius enthusiast Bobby Byrne, who was the unwitting model for the protagonist of “Confederacy,” Ignatius Reilly.

After a return to Columbia for more schooling, Toole found himself in Puerto Rico, teaching English to local recruits. As one associate said, “it was the best time of his life, though he didn’t know it.” The Army stint in Puerto Rico was comic in the way an old “Gomer Pyle” rerun might be, with ill-educated native sons running roughshod over the Ivy League imports brought in to teach English to the boisterous Hispanics.

Toole wrote there at a sprinter’s pace. He nonetheless could not finish the manuscript in Puerto Rico; post-discharge, he returned to his hometown to finish his book.

The author completed the book; Simon and Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb took interest. But many revisions later, Mr. Gottlieb rejected it as a “novel about nothing.” Yet again, Ken Toole had put his entire spirit onto typewriter pages and found himself without a published product.

He could hold out for only so long. Toole left New Orleans on Richard Nixon’s Inauguration Day on a solitary road trip. Perhaps he knew that he would never return. He ended his life outside of Biloxi, Miss. But the literary world was not finished with him.

“Butterfly in the Typewriter” is required reading for anyone interested in this enigmatic literary figure; indeed, in Southern literature in general.

• A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.