Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces
“The sad ironies are, of course, that John Kennedy Toole’s death by his own hand offered his mother the tool that she needed to wedge open the doors to the publishing industry. And the book that everyone rejected ultimately because a classic. And that even in his own biography, John Kennedy Toole is usurped by the presence of his mother, the most vibrant character in these pages.”
It’s a famous story.
A young college instructor and would-be author, having unsuccessfully shopped his comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces to New York publishers, succumbs to depression and kills himself at a very young age.
His mother, Thelma, believing her son’s book to be a work of genius, becomes her son’s “post-mortem literary agent” and sends the novel to every major publisher in New York. Ignoring their rejections, she takes the novel to a famous novelist and demands he read it. He gives it to his wife. She reads in and directs him to do the same. The famous novelist becomes a fan. He champions the book.
Ultimately it is published by a small, academic publishing house. While the mother is pleased, all signs point to obscurity. But miraculously, the book is much written about in the media, largely because of the baroque story of its publication. Reviews are mixed, but sales are hot. The book wins the Pulitzer Prize.
Thelma becomes the darling of the literary world. She goes on the “Tomorrow” television show, with host, the chainsmoking Tom Snyder. Calling upon her background in the theatrical arts and despite her walker, Thelma shows great presence on TV.
“Nearing the end of the interview, she gave her signature line that she used to conclude most of her public appearances. ‘I walk the world for my son,’ she said, ‘I’m humble because I was a vessel to bring a scholarly genius—he was a scholarly genius and a literary genius.’”
To which Tom Snyder replied, “’Well, I’ll tell you something, his mom ain’t too shabby either.’”
Fade to black.
It’s a perfect Hollywood story of art, sacrifice, motherhood, determination, and the Pulitzer Prize.
Oh, but the truth is so much more complicated than this.
In his new biography, the curiously named Butterfly in the Typewriter, author Cory MacLauchlin seeks to set the record straight by exhaustively presenting us with his research into the life, death, and literary afterlife of John Kennedy Toole. But in doing so, he raises nearly as many questions as he answers.
Truth be told, Toole was a cypher even to those who knew him best—most especially to his own mother, from whom he kept the existence of his firt novel, The Neon Bible, a secret until she found it in a box after his death.
His sexuality still in question—was he, as some friends describe him “asexual,” or as his previous biographers insist “latently” homosexual—and his close friendships were few and far between.
John Kennedy Toole was, by all accounts, a jovial man, a hell of a good dancer, and someone whose powers of observation made him a keen impersonator of those around him; but he was also prone to bouts of deep, perhaps clinical, depression and was known to have suffered at least one nervous breakdown before his suicide.
Butterfly in the Typewriter (the title is taken from a poem that Toole wrote as a young student) ends somewhat prophetically:
The book sold well, we understand,/Although the cover itself would command/A buyer’s attention: a large, abstract bee/Crushing a butterfly with a typewriter key
Though Mr. MacLauchlin treats Toole fairly, even compassionately, the reader cannot help but fear that the author, for all his scrupulous research, is a bit in over his head in trying to explain the engines that drove Toole to his death.
Thus the book—which seems incredibly padded up front, including almost agonizing detail about Toole’s scholarly pursuits before and during his time at Tulane—becomes almost skimpy in detail when dealing with Toole’s final days. Like Thelma, we are left wondering just what it was that robbed him of hope. (Unlike Thelma, we do not have his suicide note to inform us; even though she saved nearly every scrap of paper upon which he ever wrote, she destroyed this single document and never revealed its contents.)
Once Toole is out of the picture, ironically Butterfly catches fire—its morose yet bullheaded subject in an early grave—and with a surprising new protagonist: Thelma. Perhaps because he is now dealing with the material that is better known, even if it has been distorted by time and the joy of a good anecdote, perhaps even at the expense of the honest truth, the sections of the book reporting on the mother’s struggle to see her son’s legacy respected and honored are the book’s best.
Indeed, when Thelma finally hits upon the idea of taking the book to that famous author, Butterfly positively sings:
“One day in the fall of 1976 she read in the Times Picayune that Walker Percy, whose first novel, The Moviegoer, which had won the National Book Award, was teaching a writing seminar at Loyola University. Thelma saw an opportunity. If letter and a manuscript could not entice publishers, then perhaps she could gain a champion with connections in the publishing world. She first reached out to Percy by phone, making calls to his office at Loyola. Percy resisted her with gentlemanly manners, which was more than what some editors offered her. So she decided the days of patient letter writing and polite phone calls were over. With eighteen years of training in the dramatic arts, certainly she could persuade a fellow artist to consider her son’s novel. It was time for some theater.
“She told [her brother] Arthur to prepare himself for a drive to Loyola. He obediently put on his suit and cap. Thelma dressed in her finest attire, dousing herself with talcum powder as a finishing touch. She grabbed the box containing the manuscript, determined this would be the day her son would be recognized. As the elderly brother and sister made their way Uptown, Walker Percy had no idea he would stand as an audience to Thelma Ducoing Toole.
“Percy’s class concluded around five o’clock, after which he would make his drive out of New Orleans, across Lake Pontchartrain, to Covington, where he and his family lived. As he left his office one fall day, an old woman in a fine dress, a pillbox hat, and lace with while gloves holding a white box tied with a string approached him . . . The old lady told Percy of her son, how he had committed suicide but left behind a novel. She wanted him to read it . . . As a Southern gentleman, he could not in good conscience reject the pleas of a mother who endured the grief of her son’s suicide. He was cornered. He took the box from her and offered his condolences.”
The sad ironies are, of course, that John Kennedy Toole’s death by his own hand offered his mother the tool that she needed to wedge open the doors to the publishing industry. And the book that everyone rejected ultimately because a classic. And that even in his own biography, John Kennedy Toole is usurped by the presence of his mother, the most vibrant character in these pages.