Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review: Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole, by Cory MacLauchlin (2012)

To me, it is the most incredible story in the history of American literature.

In 1963, a 25-year-old Army officer stationed in Puerto Rico -- where he taught English to Spanish-speaking recruits -- decided to write a novel. By the end of 1963, he had returned to his hometown of New Orleans and finished his book -- a long, funny, picaresque tale about life in the Crescent City -- which he called "A Confederacy of Dunces." (The title comes from a quote by Jonathan Swift: "When a genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.")

The writer, John Kennedy Toole, sent the novel to Simon and Schuster in New York, where it was read by Robert Gottlieb, one of the most highly-regarded editors in town. Gottlieb liked the book, and thought Toole showed great talent, but did not believe the book to be publishable. He told Toole that he did not think the book had enough "meaning" to find an audience. For two years, Toole spent a great amount of time corresponding with Gottlieb and attempting to change the book in ways that Gottlieb wanted, but ultimately Toole gave up on trying to get the book published. He never submitted it anywhere else.

Soon after these events, around 1967 or so, Toole began showing signs of severe depression and paranoia. He told friends that Gottlieb had stolen his idea and given it to someone else. He said that students from the local college where he taught were following him outside of school. His condition grew worse, and in January 1969, he drove out of New Orleans after an argument with his mother. No one knows exactly what he did over the next two months, although there is evidence that he visited California and that he went to Flannery O'Conner's hometown in Georgia. In March 1969, he was found dead outside Biloxi, Mississippi. He had committed suicide by running a garden hose from the exhaust pipe into the window of his car. He was 31 years old.

Toole's mother was devastated by the death of her son, and spent years trying to convince someone to publish his book. Eventually she went to see Walker Percy, a prominent writer who was temporarily on the faculty at Loyola University of New Orleans. Percy liked the book and worked to help get it published. In 1980, it was published by the LSU Press.

It won the Pulitzer Prize, and has been enormously popular ever since.

Ever since the book was published, fans of A Confederacy of Dunces have been haunted by the tragic death of its author. But remarkably little trustworthy information has been available. Now, at last, Toole has a biography worthy of his life. In Butterfly in the Typewriter, Cory MacLauchlin -- a member of the English Faculty at Germanna Community College near Fredericksburg, Virginia -- has done a great amount of research, and appears to have interviewed all of the relevant sources who can still be reached. More importantly, he has adopted a measured approach to his subject's life -- which is not easy, given the enormity of Toole's tragedy.

MacLauchlin wisely avoids giving us any easy answers about the many questions surrounding Toole's final years. He refuses to paint Gottlieb as a villain, pointing out his sterling track record as an editor and his expressed willingness to work with Toole. MacLauchlin flags Toole's difficulties with his out-spoken and over-bearing mother, while acknowledging her incredible devotion to her son and his memory. MacLauchlin also throws in numerous details I hadn't seen before, such as what Toole was like as a teacher. Ultimately, however, MacLauchlin recognizes that Toole -- who never married (and indeed, never seems to have formed any serious romantic attachment) -- took most of his secrets to the grave. He was a distant figure who didn't open up to very many people, and his closest confidants have generally refused to give up whatever secrets he told them.

Nevertheless, by clearing away rumors (for example, he explodes the widespread theory that Toole's problems resulted from his being a closeted homosexual), and letting everyone see the available facts, MacLauchlin has done great service. Fans of A Confederacy of Dunces will learn a great deal about its remarkably talented author, and can focus on Toole's great work without speculating so much about his tormented life.

My only wish is that MacLauchlin had devoted some time and thought to other writers who experienced similar tragedies. At times, he seems to indicate that Toole would have been fine if Simon and Schuster had published its book. But publication didn't save Ross Lockridge, the author of Raintree County, who killed himself in 1948 when he was 33 years old. Publication didn't save Thomas Heggen, the author of Mr. Roberts, who died an apparent suicide in 1949 at the age of 30. It didn't save Frank Stanford, a highly regarded Arkansas poet who shot himself in 1979 just before his 30th birthday. As these examples show, the demons that destroyed Toole may have gotten him no matter what happened to his book. Life is not a detective story, and there are no simple solutions handed out in the last chapter.

Butterfly in the Typewriter is a must-read to anyone who loves A Confederacy of Dunces; highly recommended to anyone with an interest in writing or mental illness.


  1. this book does sound very interesting and very balanced. writing about the possible logic of someone else is always super tricky--even more so when the person is dead, even more so still when the dead someone else was mentally ill.

  2. Yeah, I think you would like this book, although I don't think you would like "A Confederacy of Dunces."