John Kennedy Toole (December 17, 1937 – March 26, 1969)
In 1976, when the great Southern novelist, Walker Percy, was teaching at Loyola in New Orleans, he began receiving calls from an eccentric old woman who insisted that he read her dead son’s book, written in the Sixties and never published.
“Why would I want to do that?” Percy asked her. “Because it’s a great novel,” the woman – Thelma Toole – said.
Against his better judgment, Percy accepted the manuscript – a badly smeared, barely legible carbon copy several hundred pages long – hoping he could read a few pages (or even a few paragraphs) and, in good conscience, gently break it to Mrs. Toole that the publishing world had saved her son embarrassment by rejecting his book.
Let Walker Percy tell what happened next: “In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own.”
The novel – A Confederacy of Dunces – was, at Percy’s urging, published in 1980, it won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and is now a permanent denizen of the Classics section in bookstores around the world. It is also one of a handful of American comic masterpieces (Catch 22 and Portnoy’s Complaint come to mind as well) that manage to be endlessly funny and profound.
It’s tempting to look for heroes and villains in the tragic story of John Kennedy Toole, who was born on this date – December 17 – in 1937 and died at his own hand after a descent into paranoid schizophrenia. The editor who rejected Toole’s book, saying he found it “formless” and “pointless,” was a perfectly good editor for other writers and other books. Thelma Toole is both hero and villain: tireless advocate of her son’s book and prototype of the narcissistic, overbearing mother in the book itself. And Walker Percy? He did a nice thing and was rewarded with hours of pleasure … not to mention a nod from the ages as one of those good men (in another Southern writer’s phrase) that it’s hard to find.
Let’s make our hero the books itself, A Confederacy of Dunces, which refused to die with its author and which I won’t attempt to summarize here. I’ll just give you the first paragraph. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t enjoy anything that follows. If you do – like Walker Percy – you might decide to buy the book and read it all the way to the end.
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black mustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.”