Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces

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Overview

The saga of John Kennedy Toole is one of the greatest stories of American literary history. After writing A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole corresponded with Robert Gottlieb of Simon & Schuster for two years. Exhausted from Gottlieb’s suggested revisions, Toole declared the publication of the manuscript hopeless and stored it in a box. Years later he suffered a mental breakdown, took a two-month journey across the United States, and finally committed suicide on an inconspicuous road outside of Biloxi. Following ...

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Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces

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Overview

The saga of John Kennedy Toole is one of the greatest stories of American literary history. After writing A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole corresponded with Robert Gottlieb of Simon & Schuster for two years. Exhausted from Gottlieb’s suggested revisions, Toole declared the publication of the manuscript hopeless and stored it in a box. Years later he suffered a mental breakdown, took a two-month journey across the United States, and finally committed suicide on an inconspicuous road outside of Biloxi. Following the funeral, Toole’s mother discovered the manuscript. After many rejections, she cornered Walker Percy, who found it a brilliant novel and spearheaded its publication. In 1981, twelve years after the author’s death, A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize.

In Butterfly in the Typewriter, Cory MacLauchlin draws on scores of new interviews with friends, family, and colleagues as well as full access to the extensive Toole archive at Tulane University, capturing his upbringing in New Orleans, his years in New York City, his frenzy of writing in Puerto Rico, his return to his beloved city, and his descent into paranoia and depression.

 

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this thoughtful and thorough biography, MacLauchlin recounts the short and tragic life of John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces-a book cast aside by publishers during the author's life, but finally published and awarded the Pulitzer Prize after his suicide at 31-years-old. Born in New Orleans in 1937, Toole was the only son of a "pure" Creole mother and an Irish immigrant father, and was a precocious student growing up and at Tulane. MacLauchlin tracks Toole from his Cajun upbringing, to his graduate work at Columbia in New York City at a time when the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were basking in "newfound literary fame," and to his being drafted and stationed in Puerto Rico as an English teacher in 1960, during which assignment his book began to take shape. Unfortunately, finding a publisher for the idiosyncratic comic novel proved difficult; Simon & Schuster editor Robert Gottleib took interest in Toole and his work, but remained unconvinced that publishing A Confederacy of Dunces was a tenable business move. Meanwhile, Toole's mental health rapidly deteriorated, a process abetted by his work on the novel. The final days of the young writer's life are the hardest to recreate, but MacLauchlin does an admirable job distinguishing facts from speculations as he recounts the events leading up to Toole's suicide on a lonesome Mississippi roadside.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
PW’s Best Summer Reads 2012, 6/8/12

Kirkus Reviews, 3/15/12
“[MacLauchlin] cleanly lays out the brief life of his subject and his work’s unlikely afterlife…A valuable biography”

BookPage, April Issue
“[A] highly readable biography…It does an impressive job filling in the gaps and helping readers better understand this complex writer.”
 
Yahoo! Shine, 3/18/12
“Author Cory MacLauchlin provides a well-documented, highly objective, step-by-step track of Toole's too-short life.”
 
San DiegoUnion Tribune, 3/30/12
“A complete telling of the sad but triumphant story…The life that unfolds here is full of contrasts: laughter and pain, popularity and isolation, failure and success.”
 
LitReactor.com, 4/11
“In addition to being the most comprehensive and accurate biography about the man so far, it's also a gripping read”
 
Blurt-Online, 4/19/12
“An impressive new biography…MacLauchlin makes Toole come alive by providing illuminating glimpses into his life and clearing up much of the fog surrounding his death.”
 
Publishers Weekly, 4/23/12
“[A] thoughtful and thorough biography…MacLauchlin does an admirable job distinguishing facts from speculation.”
 

New City, 5/1/12
Butterfly in the Typewriter is as close to unraveling the enigma of the often-mysterious John Kennedy Toole as we are ever likely to read, and his story makes for an engrossing read.”
 
Shepherd Express, 5/2/12
A fascinating account of Toole's short, intense life…For anyone carrying more than a passing interest in A Confederacy of Dunces, this bio is, of course, a must-read.”
 
Cleveland Plain Dealer, 5/11/12
“For anybody who has faced rejection (and who hasn’t?), this book contains a lifetime worth of wisdom.”
 
BuffaloNews, 5/6/12
“This is a sad story well-told”
 
Deep SouthMagazine,6/1/12
“MacLauchlin has created a book that is literary, erudite and accessible all at the same time. He has married scholarship with storytelling, which is not an easy feat.”
 
AtlantaJournal Constitution, 5/29/12
“Cory MacLauchlin’s fair-minded biography unpacks one myth at a time…Along with its portrait of a complicated, conflicted and flawed young writer, Butterfly in the Typewriter provides a comprehensive look at Toole’s childhood, college years, his army posting in Puerto Rico and his lifelong love affair with New Orleans.”
 
WinnipegFree Press, 5/27/12“A balanced and sensitive biography of Toole, is very much the stuff of movies”

WashingtonTimes, 6/8/12“[An] exhaustive biography…Required reading for anyone interested in this enigmatic literary figure; indeed, in Southern literature in general.”

VanityFair.com, 7/25/12“It’s an exhaustively researched chronicle of the remarkable life of John Kennedy O’Toole…MacLauchlin’s story…is heartbreaking…I implore you to read the novel and A Butterfly in the Typewriter now, to meet the man and Ignatius yourself before it’s too late.”

Library Journal, 8/03/12
“The reader experiences the life and death of Toole, as well as the amazing journey that the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces took long after its author was gone….[MacLauchlin] shows a connection to and understanding of Toole that translates to readers, making them feel as if they, too, have entered Toole’s mind and are with him through his ups and downs…MacLauchlin has a deep understanding of Toole without making any unfounded assumptions…Recommended to all literary biography collections and necessary for all those studying the prominent cultural figures of New Orleans.”


The Advocate
, 8/14/12
“MacLauchlin does this tragic story justice, producing a gripping biography worth reading."

VanityFair.com, 7/25/12
“It’s an exhaustively researched chronicle of the remarkable life of John Kennedy O’Toole…MacLauchlin’s story…is heartbreaking…I implore you to read the novel and A Butterfly in the Typewriter now, to meet the man and Ignatius yourself before it’s too late.”

Kirkus Reviews
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.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Go a little distance through the world with a copy of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces in your hand and you'll find that it operates less as a book and more as an unpredictable engine of friendship, allowing you to share moments of irruptive collegiality with complete (and sometimes less-than- complete) strangers. The effect, for reasons of local patriotism, is especially strong in New Orleans, where A Confederacy of Dunces enjoys a particular favor among pickpockets, drunken academics, and garrulous persons riding the bus. But it can happen anywhere. A few weeks ago I mentioned the book in passing to my seat neighbor on a transatlantic flight, and within minutes we were swapping lines — "lascivious, gyrating children!," "my valve is closing!" — and snuffling with air- conditioned mirth.

Cory MacLauchlin's Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Short, Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of "A Confederacy of Dunces" tells two stories: that of John Kennedy Toole and that of his great novel. That the stories are distinct is the tragedy, as every Dunces nut knows — because after the cackling with your new friend and the crossfire of quotation and misquotation, one of you will inevitably frown and say: "You know the guy killed himself...?" It's a bemusing and terrible fact: A Confederacy of Dunces, so vigorous, so hilarious, winner of the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, came into the world as an orphan, its publication midwifed by Walker Percy (more of him later) but its progenitor already dead by his own hand, gassed in his car on a Louisiana roadside.

What went wrong? One of the ghastlier byproducts of suicide is its reversal of chronology: the life thus terminated is viewed, essentially, backward. In the early chapters of Butterfly in the Typewriter, which detail Toole's precocious but not particularly remarkable New Orleans childhood and adolescence, this produces intermittently the sensation of going the wrong way down a one-way street. We read that the young Toole was a good dancer, loved the stage, wrote interesting high school essays, was ambivalent with girls, etc., and we feel anxious and unable to concentrate. Sequential, horizontal narrative seems a mistake, somehow.

But MacLauchlin conveys the information ably and diligently. And it's worth knowing, for example, that Toole's father, John, suffered from an unspecified mental illness that involved talking incessantly and walking around the house in his underwear. Or that, while teaching at the Southwestern Louisiana Institute, Toole encountered "a mustached medievalist" named Bobby Byrne, who assigned Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy to every class he taught, loved hot dogs, and — perhaps as a consequence of the latter — suffered tremendously from gas. ("Ill-timed flatulence," MacLauchlin calls it, leaving the reader to wonder what well-timed flatulence might be.) Presented thus with his lead character, Toole grabbed the gift with both hands, and Confederacy's Ignatius J. Reilly — a bloating Boethian — was born.

Toole began the book in 1963 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he was serving Uncle Sam by teaching English to Spanish-speaking recruits. A year later it was finished, and the novice author had entered into a dialogue with Robert Gottlieb, star editor at Simon and Schuster. This is where the trouble begins, and not coincidentally where MacLauchlin's book kicks into gear. With the utmost courtesy Gottlieb prevaricated, hemmed and hawed over the manuscript, made a number of sensitive suggestions, coached and counseled Toole. The total effect of his professional attentions was to unnerve and finally unbalance the fragile writer. Their back-and-forth makes grim reading: "There must be point to everything you have in the book," warns Gottlieb in one letter, "a real point, not just amusingness forced to figure itself out." Months pass, and Toole gives up. "The only sensible thing to do, it seems to me," he writes to Gottlieb in January 1965, "is to ask for the manuscript. Aside from some deletions, I don't think I could really do much to the book now — and, of course, even with revisions you might not be satisfied." The strain of being reasonable was too much for Toole. He fainted in Gottlieb's office. He became convinced that George Deaux, a successful Simon and Schuster author, had plagiarized him. He drifted away.

James Parker is the author of Turned On: A Biography of Henry Rollins (Cooper Square Press), and a correspondent for The Atlantic. After his death it was left to Toole's mother, the formidable Thelma, to wage a one- woman war on behalf of the unpublished novel. In time her cause would be assisted by Walker Percy, to whom much credit goes: I hadn't realized until I read Butterfly in the Typewriter quite how hard the good doctor worked to get Toole's book into print. Thank him silently (or blame him) the next time a stranger accosts you with a glad light in his eyes, wanting only to talk about A Confederacy of Dunces.

Reviewer: James Parker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780306821912
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 4/23/2013
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 435,155
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Cory MacLauchlin is a producer, biographer, and member of the English Faculty at Germanna Community College. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife and son.

 

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