Spoiler alert: This post concerns the novel A Confederacy of Dunces and its author John Kennedy Toole. Paradoxically, the theme of this post is that if you haven’t read the book then you shouldn’t read the post. Your choice.
I’ve long argued that the only thing worth knowing about a book or film before reading/watching them is that they’re worth reading/watching. Any additional knowledge only creates preconceptions which distract from your enjoyment. It’s best to enter completely open minded. Sometimes I wonder whether this position was heavily influenced by the friend who told me both the twist in From Dawn Till Dusk and what was in the box in Seven. I’m not sure I ever properly thanked her for that.
It’s for this reason that when I begin a new book I always skip past any prefaces or forewords. If I enjoy a book, then I’ll flick back and read any introductions. If not, I don’t bother. The value of doing this couldn’t have been better illustrated than when I read A Confederacy of Dunces.
If you’re unaware, it’s a comedic novel written in the picaresque style. It initially took me a while to adapt to the unfamiliar style, but soon enough I was laughing heartily at the misadventures of the brilliant character Ignatius Reilly.
I knew nothing about the book or its author. As I delved deeper into the story I began to guess that it was set around the fifties or sixties and the author was from New Orleans. The city was described with such vivid detail that it surely could have only been written by someone with intimate knowledge of the city. Beyond these sketchy guesses, I wasn’t sure of much.
After enjoying A Confederacy of Dunces so much I readily flicked back to the start to learn more about the story and its author.
My initial suspicions were correct. The book had been written in 1963 and Toole was indeed a lifelong inhabitant of New Orleans. He was also an English lecturer and an inspiring writer. I say aspiring because A Confederacy of Dunces was his first published novel, but it was published posthumously.
Toole spent several years trying to get Dunces published, but to no avail. One particular publisher expressed interest, but demanded numerous rewrites. Toole duly obliged, but it continued to receive repeat rejections. After two years of rewrites and rejections it was still no closer to publication. The publisher’s senior editor dismissed it as pointless and claimed it ‘wasn’t about anything.’ Toole was left devastated. He resigned himself to that fact that he’d never be able to please the publishers. Bitterly disappointed he abandoned his quest for publication.
The rejection cut deep. Over time the wound festered, developing into feelings of persecution, anxiety and eventually depression. Six years later he would still complain bitterly to friends about the rejection he felt. His mental health began to deteriorate. He began acting irrationally, such as claiming that he was being followed. He searched the house for mind reading devices. He spoke of far-fetched plots to steal his book and publish it under a different name. Such increasingly erratic behaviour eventually rendered him unable to continue teaching. He began drinking heavily, gaining weight and, contrary to his previously immaculate presentation, his appearance became scruffy and dishevelled.
In 1969, after a ferocious argument with his mother, he got into his car and took a trip around the US. Sadly, upon reaching Biloxi, Mississippi, he ran a garden hose from his car’s exhaust and through the window. The police officer who attended the scene described Toole and the car in immaculate condition. Toole’s facial expression was described as completely free from distress. He was thirty-two years old.
Afterwards a friend described how years earlier Toole had taken him to the very spot where he would later end his life. The friend had been confused as to why he’d driven him to such an unassuming place.
Toole’s mother later dedicated herself to getting the book published. Despite many rejections, she finally managed to get the writer Walter Percy to read it. Percy was immediately enthralled. He pushed to get the book published, and succeeded. It was finally published in 1980 – eleven years after Toole’s death. It’s both a vindication of Toole’s vision and a tragic bittersweet twist but, upon Percy’s insistence, it was the original draft that was published.
The next year it won the Pulitzer Prize. It has since been translated into eighteen languages and sold more than 1.5 million copies, and is now considered a seminal work of twentieth century Southern American literature.
When I discovered the above story I felt quite relieved that I’d skipped the foreword. Knowing that the book had helped set such tragic consequences in motion would undoubtedly have seriously altered the way I viewed it. And I’m sure it would have made it a lot harder to enjoy the story’s dark humour knowing the even dark story that lurks behind it.