John Kennedy Toole: A toast to literature’s funniest failure

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John Kennedy Toole: A toast to literature’s funniest failure

The tragicomic life of ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ author John Kennedy Toole comes to the screen

Martin Chilton


Billy Connolly once described John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces as “my favourite book of all time”. The comedian has given the novel as a present to dozens of friends, confident that each time he will secure “another convert to this brilliant, weird and surreal tale”.
The picaresque novel is about the adventures of a memorably grotesque waster from New Orleans called Ignatius J Reilly. Toole’s masterpiece, widely considered one of the best comic novels of all time, is in David Bowie’s list of top reads and was included by author Anthony Burgess in Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939 – A Personal Choice. “This funny book is the kind one wants to keep quoting from,” wrote Burgess.
Yet it was almost never published at all. Beset by mental problems, and fearing he was doomed to failure after the rejection of his novel by Simon and Schuster, Toole took his own life on March 26 1969. He was just 31. The remarkable story of how the novel came to be posthumously published in 1980, 11 years after the New Orleans-born author’s death, is now being turned into a film, with David DuBos directing a movie version of Cory MacLauchlin’s biography Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces.
It was the unflagging belief of Thelma Ducoing Toole in her son’s writing that brought the book to the world’s attention. Two years after his death, she discovered a battered manuscript in a cardboard box and sent the novel to seven publishers. They all ignored her: “Each time it came back, I died a little,” she said. Fed up of rejection by New York publishers, she began stalking local author and academic Walker Percy, cornering him at his office at Loyola University.
Percy remembered being handed “a badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon version of the novel of her dead son”. As soon as he began reading, he was entranced by A Confederacy of Dunces. The colourful, bizarre wit – in lines such as “Gimme half a dozen wine cakes, Ignatius gets nasty if we run outta cake” – hooked him. “I was in wonderment at how good the novel was,” he wrote in a subsequent foreword for the book.
A first run of 2,500 copies was printed by Louisiana State University Press, and the book was soon snapped up by Allen Lane and Penguin. Its status as a publishing phenomenon was sealed when it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It has since sold more than two million copies and been translated into 35 different languages.
At the centre of a rich menagerie of characters sits the monstrous figure of Ignatius, a man addicted to junk food, television shows, the movies and the sound of his own voice. “Ignatius Reilly is without progenitor in any literature I know of – 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,” wrote Percy.
“I am an anachronism. People realise it and resent it,” Ignatius says, reflecting the life of his creator, who was always out of step with the world. Even when he was four, Toole, who was born on December 17 1937, referred to his classmates disdainfully as “those children”. Toole completed his first novel at 16, when he wrote The Neon Bible. The book, which featured a preacher based partly on Billy Graham (Toole and his mother had been to see Graham preach and “laughed their heads off”), was also published posthumously.
After graduating from Tulane University, Toole received a fellowship to study for a master’s degree in English literature at New York’s Columbia University, where he became interested in British authors. He studied 16th-century playwright John Lyly, Victorian novelist Charles Dickens and became “infatuated with Evelyn Waugh”.
He graduated on June 2 1959 and took a job teaching literature at the Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette. Toole said the English faculty was “full of fiends and madmen”, and no one was stranger than his colleague Anthony Robert Byrne. The lecturer, known as Bobby, became a model for his antihero – with Toole using Ignatius, because it was a name that had amused him since childhood.
Byrne, a tall, burly moustachioed man, was a respected scholar. However, he lived an eccentric life, residing in a dishevelled cabin, where he played a harpsichord that had been custom-made in England (Ignatius plays a lute) and told anyone who would listen that civilisation had peaked in the 14th century. Toole, who dressed neatly in pressed trousers and crisp shirts, marvelled at the freakish nature of Byrne’s clothes, telling him once that he “looked shocking … like an April Fool’s cover of Esquire”. Toole watched Byrne closely, taking notes about his clothes, his speech and his mannerisms. “I didn’t know I was under observation,” Byrne later said.
The brilliant opening line of A Confederacy of Dunces – “A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head” – introduced readers to the freak that is Ignatius. The obese character always wears an ear-flapped cap (to prevent head colds), which he unbuttons when he wants to hear people. He sports billowing tweed trousers (which he struggles to button up), a red flannel nightshirt and desert boots. Ignatius’s broken Mickey Mouse wristwatch was an added invention.
Ignatius shared another of Byrne’s traits: fearsome flatulence. “Ignatius often bloated while lying in bed in the morning,” wrote Toole, who detailed his character’s woes with his “misbehaving valve”: “Great belches ripped out of the gas pockets of his stomach and tore through his digestive tract,” wrote Toole. “Some escaped noisily. Others, weaning belches, lodged in his chest causing massive heartburn.”
Byrne was not convinced he had inspired Ignatius, claiming that the character was more of “an alter-ego of Toole”, who was a man desperate to be famous. He said the “messy, alienated, fat, tremendous failure Ignatius” represented Toole’s fears about how society secretly judged him.
Food is a recurring theme with the obese Ignatius, who is described as a “hulking silhouette” and “a great monster with paws and great slabs of feet”. He has strong opinions (“canned food is a perversion, I suspect that it is ultimately very damaging to the soul”) and is never short of advice. “I have always found coconut to be good roughage,” he commented.
The description of one of his regular trips to the cinema (he never missed a Doris Day movie) detailed that on the seat next to him were “three Milky Ways, and two auxiliary bags of popcorn, the bags neatly rolled at the top to keep the popcorn warm and crisp”. In 2015, Louisiana State University celebrated the character’s gluttony by publishing A Confederacy of Dunces Cookbook.
Byrne was addicted to hot dogs and Toole recognised the potential for humour in having Ignatius take a job that involved trundling a Weenie cart around New Orleans. His Paradise Hot Dogs vending cart was an easily recognised satire of the real Lucky Dogs brand and Toole also drew on memories of a time when he had made ends meet by selling hot dogs at Toulon University football matches. “People look down on hot dog vendors,” Ignatius said.
Ignatius had a “strange medieval mind” and obsessed over the idea that life was a “wheel of fortune” that could cause the rise, and fall, of a great man. Toole, who spent a long time reading about Utilitarianism and Darwinism, admitted that rival philosophies “spar in the boxing ring of my brain”. He cited Batman as an example of someone who “transcends the abysmal society in which he’s found himself”.
“Most fools don’t comprehend my worldview at all,” the bombastic Ignatius exclaimed, echoing Jonathan Swift’s epigram that “when a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him”.
Ignatius was an angry man. He hated his bourgeois neighbours (railing against the “insipid philosophy of the middle class”) and his attempts to rouse black workers and gays “to save the world and bring peace” were met with derision. Religion was no help. We are told that Ignatius fell out with Catholicism after his priest refused to come and bless his dead dog, Rex, who had been laid out in the front parlour, with flowers stuck in his paws.
Toole was the only child of idiosyncratic parents. His father, John Dewey Toole, had a neurosis about home security and would put deadlocks on all the doors in the house. He was also fixated by red apples and would hand them out to visitors while telling them about the benefits for their bowel movements. Ignatius lived alone with his mother and there is little doubt that Thelma was the inspiration for the maroon-haired Irene Reilly.
Mother and son have an argumentative relationship (“nice treatment will confuse and destroy you”, Ignatius told her). At times, their relationship was downright creepy. “These Oedipal bonds were beginning to overwhelm me,” Ignatius revealed. MacLauchlin described how Thelma would often praise her son’s “enchanting, magnificent eyes” and his “brawny physique”. She claimed Toole “only had eyes for me” and would follow her son when he went out on dates.
In the early 1960s, he joined the army and was stationed at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, as an English instructor with Company A. “What a mad universe I am in,” Toole wrote to his parents, adding that he found the politics within the army fascinating and said he was learning a lot about human nature. He borrowed a typewriter and began writing. It was only then, thousands of kilometres from his own family, that he had the distance and perspective he needed to put together his novel.
As he rose to the rank of sergeant, there was a disparity between his private behaviour (where he was kind to his Caribbean students) and the bigotry of some of his correspondence, in which he cruelly dismissed Puerto Ricans as “unintelligent and uncivilised”. He put some of those offensive traits into Ignatius, whose rants against women, lesbians and homosexuals are wince-making. Some reviewers even pointed out strains of antisemitism in the novel. Some of the language in the novel – he used the words “mongoloid”, “retarded” and “Sodomites” as insults – seems as dated as it is objectionable. “In the unreality of my life in Puerto Rico, this book became more real to me than what was happening around me. I was beginning to talk and act like Ignatius,” Toole admitted.
Perhaps the difficulty of faithfully portraying Ignatius in all his grubby truth is for the failed attempts to turn the novel into a film – combined with the tragedies that have prompted talk of a “Dunces curse”. In 1982, with Harold Ramis of Ghostbusters fame due to direct, the first project fell apart when John Belushi, who was due to play Ignatius, died suddenly of an overdose.
“There have been some untimely deaths associated with the actors wanting or attached to playing Ignatius in a movie adaptation … John Belushi, Chris Farley, John Candy, Philip Seymour Hoffman,” said DuBos, who is directing his own screenplay of Butterfly in the Typewriter. “However, the big problem is the amount of writers, producers, directors over the years who have been attached and the amount of money that would have to be paid to them if the film version ever kicks into gear. I don’t think A Confederacy of Dunces would make a good film, but perhaps a better limited series on HBO.”
Several actors have been linked with playing Ignatius in recent years, including Jack Black, John Goodman and, most recently, Zach Galifianakis. The latter was linked with a 2013 adaptation, when Flight of the Conchords and Muppets director James Bobin tried to bring the book to screen for Paramount Pictures.
One actor who has played Ignatius is Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman, who portrayed him in the Boston Huntington theatre company’s world premiere stage adaptation in 2015. “This beloved comic novel was a huge piece of literature in my formative years,” said Offerman, who made his name as the moustached Ron Swanson. “It’s just incredibly funny writing. Ignatius really represents the human condition, set against the titular confederacy of dunces, the way we all feel. It’s so easy for any of us to feel that the world is a group of dipshits conspiring against us.” Offerman, incidentally, will play Byrne in the adaptation of Butterfly in the Typewriter, the title of which comes from an unpublished poem by Toole. Thomas Mann plays Toole, while Susan Sarandon stars as Thelma.
In his final years, Toole certainly felt that the world was out to get him. Although Thelma later tried to brand Simon and Schuster chief Robert Gottlieb as “a villain” (adding her own antisemitic slant to the debate) for rejecting the book, she overstated the role the publisher played in her son’s mental decline.
Gottlieb, who published Catch-22 and spent years honing the manuscript with Joseph Heller, acknowledged A Confederacy of Dunces as “a brilliant exercise in invention”. Ultimately his concerns that the novel “wasn’t really about anything” persuaded him not to publish it. His critique certainly hurt Toole, especially his observation that “Ignatius is not as good as you think he is. There is much too much of him in the novel.” He later admitted that passing on the novel was his “most conspicuous failure”.
After the manuscript was returned to Toole in 1967, he went downhill. Suffering dreadful headaches, he brooded on the “gruesome, Evelyn Waugh-like existence” that had driven his heroine Marilyn Monroe to suicide. His own behaviour became more and more strange. Although he had been a popular teacher at Dominican College, a Catholic all-female school in New Orleans, several students said that in 1968 he became bitter and humourless, making snide remarks about some of the girls.
He claimed that some of his pupils were stalking him and asked Byrne if he thought it possible that the government had implanted electronic mind-reading devices in his brain. “Do you think I am imagining these things?” he asked his old friend. Depressed about reaching his 30s with the label of being a failed author – and detesting his life at home with elderly, quarrelsome parents – he left home in January 1969 following a bust-up with his mother. She would never see him alive again.
He drove to California in his blue Chevy Chevelle and drifted around the US for three months, his complete whereabouts still unknown. In spring 1969 he drove to a country road in the woods, outside Biloxi, Mississippi. It was the place, a couple of years before, to which he had taken his army buddy David Kubach, without explaining why. He attached one end of a garden hose to his exhaust pipe and the other into the rear window of his car and ended his life by inhaling petrol fumes.
Only three people – his mother, father and nanny – attended his service of remembrance a few days later in New Orleans. His mother destroyed the suicide note he left in the car, telling a Times-Picayune interviewer years later that the letter was “bizarre and preposterous”, and full of “violent, insane ravings”. Lots of people espoused theories about Toole’s reasons for killing himself, and there were claims about his suppressed homosexuality, promiscuity and drunkenness. “Such conjecture and spicy speculation about Toole’s supposed secrets only add to his mystery,” commented MacLauchlin in 2012, dismissing the lurid theories.
The book stands as his legacy and a tribute to the tireless efforts of Thelma, who died in 1984, aged 82. Readers in New Orleans believed Toole captured the essence of their vibrant and chaotic city, not just through Ignatius and his mother, but with characters such as the bemused undercover Patrolman Mancuso, Mrs Reilly’s matchmaking friend Santa Battaglia and the octogenarian accountant Miss Trixie. Poor Miss Trixie, incidentally, is the object of one of Ignatius’s most poisonous insults: “Go dangle your withered parts over the toilet,” he shouts at the old lady.
A bronze statue of Ignatius stands outside the site of the now demolished DH Holmes Store, which features in the novel, and lots of people turn up to the city’s famous Mardi Gras parade every year dressed as Ignatius. They are celebrating an anarchic man, who believed that society was “teetering on the edge of the abyss”.
Incidentally, Ignatius did offer a solution to those people who were reeling from the chaos in the world: go and make a cheese dip.
- © The Daily Telegraph

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