"Butterfly in the Typewriter" by Cory MacLauchlin
Reviewed by David Marshall James
In 1963, 25-year-old John Kennedy "Ken" Toole-- stationed with the U.S. Army in Puerto Rico, where he was teaching English to the island's draftees-- commenced pounding out "A Confederacy of Dunces" on a borrowed typewriter.
The novel is a valentine to Toole's native city, New Orleans, albeit a valentine cut from the wrapper of a fully-dressed and devoured po'boy, smeared with powdered sugar from a plate of beignets, stained with coffee and chicory au lait, covered with rings from sweaty bottles of Dixie beer, then rescued from the muddy bank of the Mississippi River, where it had blown from the open window of a St. Charles Avenue trolley.
"A Confederacy of Dunces" is saturated with the author's hopes and dreams for its success to such a degree that he foretells his failure in seeing its publication.
Toole has his escaping protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, grasping for the Big Chief tablets in which he has captured epic musings on the late 20th century, as viewed from the perspective of a medieval philosopher. Ignatius prophesies that the irony would flow like gutter wash after an afternoon thunderstorm should his mother, Irene, take the work and make a fortune from it.
Which is precisely what Toole's own mother, Thelma, did, 10 years after her only child's suicide at age 31. As difficult as Thelma could be, how different would her son have been if she had not been such a-- to borrow a polite, au courant phrase-- force of nature in his life: At times, a hurricane spiraling in from the Gulf of Mexico, at others the wind beneath his wings?
If Thelma had not been the "Big Chief" proponent of "Dunces" from the time it was conceived, it never would have been personally deposited on the desk of novelist Walker Percy, who (with full credit to his wife, Bunt) championed the book into life.
For some reason, when he returned to New Orleans following discharge from the Army, Ken became fixated on placing the novel with editor Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster. Gottlieb and various Simon and Schuster editorial assistants liked the work, but the letters from the editor to the scribe bear the underlying tone of, "Not this one-- but you're good, so send us your next one."
Ken, who had skipped elementary-school grades and advanced through Tulane University with precocious elan-- then crammed an M.A. out of Columbia University in one year-- lacked the fortitude to press on through rejection. Why was he so determined to stick to Gottlieb, whom Thelma ultimately blamed for her son's death?
Why didn't he shop the novel elsewhere, or set it aside and try something else, as he had with his first, much shorter novel, "The Neon Bible," which was entered unsuccessfully in a writing contest, then relegated to a cardboard box, unbeknownst even to Thelma?
If "Dunces" had been published forthwith, it might have proved a flash in the pan. Even New Orleanians might have bristled at the characters as cutting too close to the bone. "Are you makin' fun of us?" could have been the order of the day.
The 17 years between the novel's completion and its glorious reception-- including a Pulitzer Prize-- may have been vital to its longevity, to its being popular more than thirty years later.
During those 17 years, America managed to come out on the far side of political assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate Scandal. Toole's novel thus emerged as rollicking nostalgia. Everyone in the fabled Crescent City suddenly knew someone who was exactly like someone in "A Confederacy of Dunces." New Orleans and Points Beyond could laugh with the satire, even if they were part and parcel of it.
The novel had become vintage wine.
Author Cory MacLauchlin provides a well-documented, highly objective, step-by-step track of Toole's too-short life, with reminiscences from friends, academic colleagues, and students, inclduing some from his years as professor at St. Mary's Dominican College in New Orleans, and from what was then Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette.
MacLauchlin also pinpoints probable models for some of the characters in "Dunces." Still, Ken and his Ignatius do share interests, including moviegoing (Toole loved Marilyn Monroe, while Ignatius has an odd attraction to Doris Day).
As for Irene Reilly, one need only glance through the excellent selection of photographs. She's Thelma, from start to finish: An aging refugee from a Gold Diggers movie, as Ignatius observes.
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