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'Butterfly in the Typewriter' Remembers John Kennedy Toole

May. 1, 2012
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John Kennedy Toole, author of the venerated cult classic A Confederacy of Dunces, was (the following may be a well-worn maxim, but its relevance remains steadfast in this case) a brief, bright comet in the dark skies of the literary night. Cory MacLauchlin does a fine job of rendering that radiant encounter with existence in this succinct and engaging biography.

The Butterfly in the Typewriter
(Da Capo Press) is a fascinating account of Toole's short, intense life—one brilliant but ultimately doomed. And for anyone carrying more than a passing interest in A Confederacy of Dunces, this bio is, of course, a must-read.

New Orleans was Toole's city, his home, one he cherished and gainfully absorbed. He was a keen, lifelong observer of people and situations. Ultimately, he put those vivid examinations onto the page despite his oft-times overbearing familial circumstances, for his upbringing was overshadowed by a domineering mother and a father who was sadly falling into mental illness. Fate was making itself known.

Toole was a prodigy; amazingly, he wrote his first novel at the age of 16: The Neon Bible (finally released in 1989 and later made into a film).

He went on to spend his adult life in academia, concurrently as teacher and student, respectively revered and adored. He attended post-graduate school at Columbia University, where the Pulitzer Prize originated (and with that coveted prize awarded to A Confederacy of Dunces, albeit posthumously in 1981, he had arrived full circle). But in his heart, and beyond university realms, he possessed a yearning glow that could not be contained within institutional walls: He had to take another shot at a novel.

Yet the magic moment didn't occur until he began a two-year stint in the Army while stationed in Puerto Rico. It was there on a borrowed typewriter that he began A Confederacy of Dunces. He finished it in short order back in New Orleans, continually inspired by that gloriously vibrant city and its eclectic denizens.

Over the course of two years, he professionally corresponded with the renowned editor Robert Gottlieb of Simon & Schuster, who liked the manuscript but sought a tangible coherence to the narrative that Toole was unfortunately unable to provide. And in a grave misstep, Toole sadly withdrew the book.

As Toole's genetic malaise tightened its grip, his public behavior noticeably changed, eventually evolving into a damning descent into paranoia. In 1969, Toole didn't return to teaching. Instead, he emptied his bank account, packed his bags and left the house he shared with his parents. In a lonely field outside of Biloxi, Miss., he tragically took his own life at the age of 31.

But the story doesn't end there.

Ironically, it was the prevailing dominance of his mother—so ardently applied throughout his formative years—that paid off immensely in his posthumous life, as she shepherded his book into publication more than a dozen years after completion. It was finally published in 1980.

Toole's mother destroyed his suicide note and most likely other revealing testaments along the way, as there are obvious gaps in Toole's correspondence and such. In essence, she was still controlling and designing his image even in his afterlife. MacLauchlin does an admirable job of reconstructing the troubled tapestry of this fervent life, providing for a compelling narrative. And so John Kennedy Toole disappeared back into the obliterating fold of that dark Crescent City night, but the legacy of his masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces, lives on.


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