Reviewer Dr. Wesley Britton: Dr. Britton is the author of four non-fiction books on espionage in literature and the media. Starting in fall 2015, his new six-book science fiction series, The Beta-Earth Chronicles, debuted via BearManor Media. For seven years, he was co-host of online radio’s Dave White Presents where he contributed interviews with a host of entertainment insiders. Before his retirement in 2016, Dr. Britton taught English at Harrisburg Area Community College. Learn more about Dr. Britton at his WEBSITE
Publisher: Da Capo Press (March 27, 2012)
Author: Cory MacLauchlin
Publisher: Da Capo Press (March 27, 2012)
When A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980, it took the literary world by storm. On one hand, it was lauded as a comic masterpiece on its own merits. Beyond the text, the back-story behind the publication made its arrival a popular and critical sensation. After all, the author had committed suicide on March 26, 1969 at the age of 31 in Biloxi, Mississippi. Were insensitive publishers to blame for rejecting such an obvious masterwork while John Kennedy Toole was still alive? Was Ignatius J. Reilly, the novel’s chief protagonist, a fictionalized self-portrait of an artist on the verge of a mental breakdown? Was the domineering figure of Irene Reilly a literary stab at Toole’s own mother, Thelma Toole? Who was this greiving mother anyway, the overbearing lady trumpeting and pushing for publication of Dunces after she found the manuscript among her late son’s possessions? Was it the author’s desire to escape her domination that lead to his death?
These and other questions
were but part of the speculations, rumors, and mythologizing that
grew around the memory of John Kennedy Toole. At one end, Thelma
Toole not only publicly basked in the reflected glory of Dunces and
became a media sensation herself, she took every opportunity to lash
out at Simon and Schuster editor Robert Gottleib. In her opinion, he
was the man responsible for her son’s suicide. Then critical
reviews and biographies became a literary industry with many attempts
to pinpoint what went wrong for John Kennedy Toole. Somehow, the
story grew that Toole was a closet homosexual despite the fact
there’s no evidence whatsoever for this notion. An alcoholic?
Again, no evidence. Rather, various voices wanted to paint Ken Toole
as a victim of thick-headed New York publishers or was drawn into
mental illness by easily diagnosed causes; easily diagnosed, that is,
by those whose only knowledge of the patient was unverified
second-hand reports and simple guesswork.
So Cory MacLauchlin has provided a valuable service with his new biography. It is, by a wide margin, the most level-headed and objective overview of Toole in print. Based on extensive first-hand accounts and interviews along with in-depth reading of extant documents, MacLauchlin traces the story of Mrs. Toole’s “Golden Boy” who was groomed for success with many tools to achieve this goal. By all accounts, he was a superior student able to skip grades and enter college early. By all accounts, he not only had ideal social graces, he was an impressionist and humorist who was a popular entertainer for his friends and colleagues. By all accounts, he was a popular and influential teacher as well.
Then came 1961 and a
two-year stint in the Army when Toole was assigned the task of
teaching English to locals in Puerto Rico. It was there where
inspiration struck, it was there he wrote most of the first draft of
A Confederacy of Dunces. And then everything changed.
It is from this point forward where Cory MacLauchlin’s work provides many correctives to the Toole myth. It becomes clear Robert Gottleib was far from the villain Thelma Toole cast him to be—in fact, he saw Dunces as a book with potential in need of some revisions. For two years, without ever meeting the author, Gottleib offered advice and counseling to Toole expecting to see a never completed second draft. From 1963 to 1969, Toole never submitted the book to any other publisher. Instead, paranoia and obvious personality changes became more and more obvious to friends and students. Whatever factors pushed this illness to suicide might have been—certainly genetics is one area worthy of exploration—John Kennedy Toole was no longer a rational man. Looking for scapegoats to blame does him no service.
For perhaps ¾ of Cory MacLauchlin’s insightful biography, we experience John Kennedy Toole as a man with gifts and warts whose decline came on suddenly and much too prematurely. The final quarter of the book explores the aftermath left in Toole’s wake ranging from Thelma Toole’s drive to see the book published and acknowledged, the often odd critical responses to it, the greed and competition for the rights to Toole’s apprentice book, The neon Bible, and MacLauchlin’s analysis of the importance of an author and his “One Hit Wonder.” Knowing Thelma Toole destroyed some of her son’s documents, such as his suicide note, and realizing Toole took many secrets to the grave, such as where he was for his last 40 days, Butterfly in the Typewriter is as definitive a biography as we’re likely to ever get. Many a previously published reference volume will now require substantial revisions. If you haven’t read any other secondary sources on Toole, all the better. This book offers a clarity and sheds light not available before.