A brief study of the too-brief life of John Kennedy Toole (1937–1969), author of the classic comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces.
Odd as it might be to say about a novelist who was unpublished in his lifetime and who killed himself at 31, Toole led something of a charmed life. The New Orleans native was an academic success, skipping two grades as a child and earning top marks studying literature at Tulane and Columbia. Later, his students at Hunter College and Dominican College would recall him as a charming and engaging teacher. An easy Army stint gave him plenty of free time, and in 1963 he began writing A Confederacy of Dunces, a brilliant picaresque novel set in his hometown. He hit the literary jackpot when the manuscript caught the admiring attention of editor Robert Gottlieb, who shepherded Catch-22 and other classics in the 1960s. But Gottlieb’s demands for revisions demoralized Toole, and after giving up on the book he slipped into a mental decline that concluded in 1969 on a Mississippi roadside, where he asphyxiated himself on his car’s exhaust fumes. MacLauchlin (English/Germanna Community Coll.) delivers this story in prose that never rises above workmanlike, but he cleanly lays out the brief life of his subject and his work’s unlikely afterlife: Thanks to his mother’s dogged efforts, Confederacy found an advocate in novelist Walker Percy, and the book became a sensation when it was published in 1980, winning the Pulitzer Prize. MacLauchlin is careful not to stray far from the documented record, and he criticizes a previous biography, Ignatius Rising (2001), for indulging in speculation about Toole’s alcoholism and sexual orientation. But apart from identifying friends and colleagues who were likely models for Confederacy’s characters, MacLauchlin engages little with the novel itself, which diminishes a sense of Toole’s accomplishment and his ongoing influence on comic novelists today.
A valuable biography, albeit lacking in Confederacy’s lively spirit.