With his new novel, "The Neon Bible," scheduled to hit bookstores this spring, John Kennedy Toole would appear to be at a promotional disadvantage.
But then he was dead long before his first novel, "A Confederacy of Dunces," was published in 1980 and won the Pulitzer Prize. There are even those who contend that the best seller owed its phenomenal success less to literary merit than to the story of Toole's suicide at 31 and his eccentric mother's 10-year struggle to find a publisher for the manuscript he left behind.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 16, 1989 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 2 Column 1 View Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Monday's story on John Kennedy Toole incorrectly stated that the Berlin airlift occurred in 1961. It should have stated that the Berlin Wall was erected in that year. The Berlin airlift took place in 1948 and 1949.
Now "Neon Bible," which Toole wrote at 16, comes along with a peculiar publication story of its own.
A Perch in Folklore
As usually happens when a second book follows a hugely successful first effort, Toole's reputation will again be tossed into the gyre of literary criticism. But Toole and his mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, seem guaranteed a high perch in the hierarchy of American literary folklore.
"My darling's Mt. Parnassus brain and multiplicity of talents forced him to endure many obstacles and trials," Thelma Toole wrote before her own death. "But he lives on, and the wonder of him still lingers in the world and will continue to live!"
The only question is, which version of Toole's life will continue to be retold?
There are at least two biographies of Toole in the works, the working titles of which hint at their disparate views. One is "Genius Among the Dunces." The other is "Momma's Boy."
"The beauteous babe, John Kennedy Toole, was born Dec. 7, 1937 in the Touro Infirmary in New Orleans," Thelma Toole wrote in a brief memoir of her son that was published in 1981 by the University of Southwestern Louisiana. ". . . He had the alertness of a six-month-old infant, and an aura of distinction which I didn't label as genius, but the years proved so."
Jane Stickney, a New Orleans resident who attended McDonough-14 grade school and Fortier High School with Toole, remembers "Kenny" as a chubby kid "with a good sense of humor that made you like him even though you resented him for being so smart."
Toole entered Tulane University at 16 and earned his masters at Columbia University. In 1961, about the time of the Berlin airlift, the sweep of the military draft widened and Toole wound up in a typing pool stationed in Puerto Rico.
"We had a wonderful little artists' colony down there," recalled James Alsop, now an English professor at the University of Nebraska who had also been assigned to the typing pool. Toole had a quick-fire wit and a Swiftian perspective of things, Alsop recalls. "He was quick to laugh, very engaging and sophisticated, but not forthcoming or warm."
About halfway through their stay in Puerto Rico, the other typists noticed that Toole was withdrawing into his quarters early, often clutching a bottle of bourbon. It wasn't till 17 years later that Alsop realized Toole had been writing "Confederacy."
After the Army, Toole taught literature at a number of universities and tried unsuccessfully to get "Confederacy" published. "During the 1968 fall semester, colleagues noticed a growing paranoia," according to what Kenneth Holditch, a professor at The University of New Orleans and author of the half-completed "Genius Among Dunces" biography, writes in his introduction to "Neon Bible."
In January of 1969, Toole disappeared. The evidence shows that he packed his car and headed for California, then drove back to the South, making a pilgrimage to author Flannery O'Connor's home. On March 26, Toole drove to the outskirts of Biloxi, Miss., ran a piece of hose from his car's exhaust pipe into the window, turned on the motor and died.
"Inexpressible tragedy!" Thelma Toole wrote. "An overwhelming loss to the scholarly and literary world, and a despairing loss to his parents!"
Five years after Toole's death, Thelma Toole came across the typescript of "Confederacy" "and found a new purpose," Holditch writes.
A burlesque of life in New Orleans and America in general, "Confederacy" focuses on the misadventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, a monstrously arrogant medievalist who prefers lying about in his flannel nightshirt sucking the filling out of jelly doughnuts to the jobs he takes--and loses--to humor his doting mother.
The book's title comes from Jonathan Swift: "When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." Thelma Toole immediately knew her son's creation was a masterpiece. But in the next five years, at least eight publishers rejected the manuscript she peddled with the tenacity of a door-to-door saleswoman.
Then she heard that novelist Walker Percy was teaching at Loyola university in New Orleans.
The last thing Percy wanted to do was "deal with the mother of a dead novelist," he writes in the introduction to the paperback edition of "Confederacy." But Thelma Toole would have none of Percy's objections. Eventually, she slipped past the secretaries at Loyola and handed Percy a "badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon" of the book.