I love A Confederacy of Dunces, one of the funniest, most empathetic looks at misfits and outsiders ever written, that blessedly never dips into sentimentality. Ignatius P. Reilly is a vexing, troubling, brilliant character who represents the late author’s alter ego, ultimately triumphant. The dialogue is brilliant and dead real – as only perhaps surreal farce can truly be – with the speech of black character Jones my personal favorite.
The famous story behind the story of author Toole’s suicide has been subject to some revision of late:
- He was a literature professor at Hunter College in Manhattan and then a faculty member at the University of Southwestern Louisiana until 1961 when he was drafted. In the army, he taught English at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico. Surprisingly, his position afforded him his own private quarters and plenty of time to write. A Confederacy of Dunces resulted. After his discharge, Ken returned to New Orleans and immediately submitted his manuscript to Simon & Schuster for publication. Soon after, the publishing house sent a letter which was so encouraging that publication seemed imminent. But, according to New Orleans writer Dalt Wonk, the letter was merely the first in a disappointing series. In his two-part work “John Kennedy Toole’s Odyssey among the Dunces,” Wonk described the events:
“Over the next few months, other letters arrived from Simon & Schuster. Thelma knew because she usually picked up the mail. But Ken did not show them to her. “He wanted to spare me,’ she said later, ‘for he knew they would grieve me.’
It was only after her son’s death that Thelma was to read the correspondence.
Robert Gottlieb, an editor with the publishing house, wanted extensive revisions, she said.
Thelma would hear Ken typing by the hour in his room.
As the months passed, Thelma says, the requests for changes continued.
Ken became frantic. His opportunity was fading. Thelma says his letters to Gottlieb took on a beseeching tone.
‘My son got down on his knees and begged. He humbled himself before that man. He told Gottlieb he had poured his soul into the book.'”
Wonk continued: “After two years of dickering, Thelma says, Gottlieb rejected the book.”
Ultimately, Ken gave up the search for a publisher. On January 20, 1969, he began a two-month-long journey. He drove to California then Georgia – stopping to see the Hearst Mansion and the home of Flannery O’Connor – and, finally, to a wooded area in Biloxi, Mississippi where he ran a garden hose from his tailpipe to one of his back windows. Three boys discovered his body. The car’s engine was still running.
Until recently, most people blamed the publishing industry for his death. Joel Fletcher was one of Ken Toole’s friends and has written a memoir about Ken and Thelma. Fletcher explained, “Robert Gottlieb has pretty much taken a bum rap in the story of Ken and Confederacy. The version that is ‘out there’ is Thelma’s much simplified and grossly unfair version. . . . Suffice it to say, there were really no villains in this story, only victims.”
Some scholars now suggest that Ken Toole’s disappointment was compounded by many other problems including his domineering mother, financial burdens, binge drinking, questions about his sexuality, and, as if those weren’t enough, the early signs of what might have been schizophrenia.
After his death, Thelma Toole decided to continue the search for a publisher. She succeeded nearly nine years later – thanks to the help of Walker Percy, an influential local novelist. In 1980, Louisiana State University published A Confederacy of Dunces, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.
So the book alone probably didn’t kill him, but it’s sad, sad, sad nonetheless.
The NY Times is holding an open discussion on A Confederacy of Dunces throughout the month of October. Toss in your 2 cents.