- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005


By Joel L. Fletcher

Pelican, $22, 216 pages, illus.


“Ken & Thelma” will likely be of interest only to those who’ve read John Kennedy Toole’s zany picaresque, “A Confederacy of Dunces.” But this is a fair-sized universe. “Dunces” has sold more than a million and a half copies in 18 languages since it was first published by the LSU Press in 1980, 13 years after Toole committed suicide near Biloxi, Mississippi. The novel still enjoys brisk sales. As it should.

This valuable companion to “Dunces” will be a treat to those who’ve enjoyed the novel. And it gives the uninitiated yet another reason to sample the madcap world of Ignatius J. Reilly, a huge, blustering, modern day Don Quixote who encounters — and is consistently outdone by — his windmills in down-scale, early-1960s New Orleans rather than 17th-century Spain.

Reilly is every bit as deluded as the Knight of the Doleful Countenance, and is louder, more animated and funnier into the bargain. Where the Don lost his mind reading too many stories of chivalry, Ignatius lost his (if he every had a grip on it) reading too many books of medieval philosophy and sitting through too many classes at university, where he spent eight years and most of his long-suffering mother’s resources getting a masters degree.

It’s never made clear what Ignatius’ degree is in. But he considers himself a medievalist and a prophet, and far too good for common employment, although conditions force him into comic and unsuccessful stints as an office clerk at a dilapidated pants factory and as a street hotdog vendor in some of N’awlins’ more rat-ridden precincts. New Orleans is no more interested in Ignatius’ agenda than Olde Spain was in the Don’s, and pays it no more attention.

The mostly black workers at Levy Pants that Ignatius tries to organize consider him crazy and have enough sense to know that if they follow his crackpot plan they will all be jugged. Likewise the homosexuals he tries to get interested in improving the world ignore him. They just want to party. The results are hilarious.

Novelist Walker Percy, in a foreword to “Dunces” says of Reilly that he’s a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one — who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age.” Just so. “Ken & Thelma” will give those familiar with Ignatius’ 400 pages of misadventures insight into how this delightful madness came to be.

Ken is the name John Kennedy Toole went by. And Thelma was his talented, theatrical and domineering mother, at once Toole’s savior and his cross to bear. Mr. Fletcher was a friend to both — to Ken when he was teaching at the University of Southwestern Louisiana at Lafayette and writing “Dunces,” and to Thelma later when she was championing Ken’s book and enjoying some of the fame that came her way from being the colorful, crusading Mom who finally got the great novel published.

Toole was unable to get “Dunces” published during his lifetime. The letters between Toole and Simon & Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb, and the chronicle of Thelma’s unsuccessful shopping of Ken’s MS after his death, will make readers wonder just how acute modern publishers are. Considering what else was being published at the time — “Herzog” and “Portnoy’s Complaint” come to mind — readers have every reason to wonder what Mr. Gottlieb was getting at when he said “Dunces” wasn’t “about anything.” (When has this ever been a bar to publication of modern literary novels?) It finally took novelist Walker Percy to get “Dunces” published. The folks at LSU Press soon realized that their favor to Percy had led to a literary earthquake. LSU Press couldn’t get books to book stores fast enough. This happy problem was compounded when “Dunces” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.

Readers of “Ken & Thelma” will see where Ken got his talent for mimicry and his ability to write pitch-perfect dialect. During Ken’s childhood, Ken and his mother — who largely supported the Toole family by teaching drama and elocution — had little money for outside entertainment and so amused themselves doing little sketches where they impersonated their neighbors and denizens of the Toole’s low-rent neighborhood. Santa Battaglia, Patrolman Mancuso, Jones, et al. lived in Ken and Thelma’s home theater long before they appeared in the pages of “Dunces.” Toole could always amuse his friends, including Mr. Fletcher, by imitating public and local figures, with or without the aid of a drink or two.

And no, Ken Toole was nothing like Ignatius. The model for the outrageous Reilly was one Bobby Byrne, a colleague of Toole’s at the USL English faculty in Lafayette during the early ‘60s. Byrne was more coherent than Ignatius, but just as large, bombastic and eccentric in dress. Speaking of dress, no, Toole wasn’t gay, though a fair number of books and articles about him have contended this, mostly in the absence of any convincing evidence. Mr. Fletcher contends that the evidence is pretty clear that Ken was that rarity among adult males, the asexual man. He was either very reticent in this area or had little or no interest in it.

At least little or no personal interest. He’s clearly interested in how sex makes people behave in mostly bizarre ways. His character Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius’ sexually aggressive friend from New York who ultimately saves him from the funny farm, is a composite of the smart and sexually-liberated young women Ken taught and was greatly amused by at Hunter College. The sad part of “Thelma & Ken” is the chronicle of Ken’s descent into depression and paranoia. We’ll never know if Ken’s suicide could have been prevented if today’s anti-depressant drugs were available then. But it’s clear that illness deprived Ken of a good portion of his life, and the world of a major talent.

More fun to read about is Thelma enjoying the fame that came her way after the novel became an item and the story of how she pushed the MS on Walker Percy became known. (Thank heavens Percy was too much of a Southern gentleman to tell an old lady to shove off — he dreaded the thought of reading the MS, but just a few nearly illegible pages into it he knew he was reading something special.) She became not only the toast of New Orleans’ social and literary circles, but did the national talk show circuit as well. Mr. Fletcher gives us amusing anecdotes of how the irrepressible Thelma gets the best of the hardly-retiring Tom Snyder on his own show — this after she had cowed tough guy Anthony Quinn in the anteroom before going on the show. (The photo of a puzzled and slightly intimidated Quinn leaning back from Thelma in full soliloquy is worth the price of the book.)

Mr. Fletcher’s book is a memoir rather than a biography. He’s an art dealer in Fredericksburg, Va., and “Thelma & Ken” is his first book. There’s no academic baggage here and no axes to grind. Mr. Fletcher’s writing style is graceful, intimate and accessible. Savvy book sellers should package copies of “Dunces” and “Ken & Thelma.” For those who’ve not had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Ignatius J. Reilly (or for those who’d like to make the trip again), I can’t imagine a better weekend’s reading.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.

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