An oddly entertaining biography of a tormented writer and his unlikely legacy.
John Kennedy Toole’s story has become the stuff of publishing legend: Boy wonder writes a dense, picaresque novel called A Confederacy of Dunces (a “rambling story about an obese, flatulent man”); no one wants to publish same; despondent boy wonder commits suicide; boy wonder’s mother recruits famous writer to find a publisher for the manuscript; the novel is published and becomes a bestseller. As Nevils and Hardy—former writing students of NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu at Louisiana State University—demonstrate, the truth of the story is considerably more complex. Born in 1936, Toole grew up to be a complex, self-hating man—but one whose talents were clearly appreciated. Far from being shunned as a provincial nobody by the powers that be in New York publishing, as the Toole myth would have it, the author of Confederacy was taken seriously at many houses (including Simon & Schuster, whose chief editor Robert Gottlieb devoted considerable time to suggesting ways in which the ungainly novel could be trimmed and focused). Too close to the work at that point, Toole was psychically unprepared to undertake revisions. His suicide, however, was not the response to rejection that his mother claimed it to have been; it was instead an escape from a long and gruesome slide into madness. A minor author by any measure, Toole would not merit a book-length study were it not for his whirlwind of a mother, who pressed the manuscript on novelist Walker Percy and hounded him until he arranged for its publication. Thelma Ducoing Toole emerges as a self-absorbed harridan of the first order in this account, conniving and utterly awful, whom everyone connected with Toole’s posthumous good fortune took pains to avoid—but who made that good fortune possible through her unwavering belief in her son’s brilliance.
Unpleasant and demanding, she—and not her unlucky son—is the real hero of this engagingly told footnote to American literary history.