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Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces Paperback – 11 Apr 2013

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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press Inc; First Trade Paper Edition edition (11 April 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306821915
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306821912
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14.2 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 339,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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 Diego Union 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.", 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." Buffalo News, 5/6/12 "This is a sad story well-told" Deep South Magazine,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." Atlanta Journal 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." Winnipeg Free Press, 5/27/12 "A balanced and sensitive biography of Toole, is very much the stuff of movies" Washington Times, 6/8/12 "[An] exhaustive biography...Required reading for anyone interested in this enigmatic literary figure; indeed, in Southern literature in general.", 7/25/12 "It's an exhaustively researched chronicle of the remarkable life of John Kennedy O'Toole...MacLauchlin's 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 manuscri

About 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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By J. Preece on 28 July 2013
Format: Paperback
I have been waiting since 1981 to find out more about John Kennedy Toole - and this well-balanced, very fair and well-researched account is superb. It's true that Maclauchlin has to fill in obvious gaps with descriptions of, say, New York in the autumn, and it does feel like filler at times. Nevertheless, he provides a gripping picture of Toole's growing obsession with his masterpiece, Confederacy, and it's hard not to feel sympathy with a young author in the grip of desperation. Maclauchlin is covers the book's publication and reception in fascinating detail. Toole left very little behind. It's to Maclauchlin's credit that readers will now have the chance to know as much about John Kennedy Toole as they are ever likely to.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I bought this as a gift and before I packed it - I thought I'd dip into it! Found it really hard to put down! A fascinating read about the enigma that was John Kennedy Toole. A must have book for any fans of Confederacy - you will not be disappointed!!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 35 reviews
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
Definitive biography of Toole 5 April 2012
By Herbert V. Leighton - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is the definitive biography of Ken Toole. On what basis do I make this claim? I have studied John Kennedy Toole and his novel A Confederacy of Dunces for five years, and I have published two peer-review journal articles on his work. I have studied his papers thoroughly and have read all previously published biographies and memoirs about him. Therefore, I am confident in this statement. I have learned a great deal from this book, my previous efforts notwithstanding. MacLauchlin has laboriously tracked down those who knew Ken Toole and has given them a voice. And I have asked around: he did not misuse his sources as Nevils and Hardy apparently did in their eariler biography.

If I had to complain, I would point out that the first couple of chapters have too much purple prose. But then, Confederacy itself doesn't win you over immediately, either. Once he gets going, MacLauchlin's style makes for a pleasant and informative read.

To review the contents:

It begins with Toole's boyhood. MacLauchlin found a boyhood friend of Toole's to describe some of his experiences and his personality at that time. There is a little of the unfortunate "He must have ... " that plagues biographies, but not too much. The Toole family had to move from more prestigious neighborhoods to less prestigious ones as their fortunes declined. Ken Toole's father was eccentric even in Ken's boyhood.

Ken's teen and college years: There is a bibliography that was produced after Toole's death of the books in his library, and MacLauchlin read through all of those books. He also interviewed professors and fellow students from Tulane and Columbia about the courses that Toole took and his experience with them. MacLauchlin clearly did his homework. He also lays out the timeline clearly. Without a clear timeline, it is difficult for the student of Toole to realize that there were two periods when Ken was in New York attending Columbia, not one. MacLauchlin has interviewed various women who dated Toole. He researched what was going on in New York when Toole was there. He was able to ascertain when Toole was doing most of his studying, and when he seemed to drift away from the studies into creative writing.

Ken's army years: In Ron Bell's Ph.D. dissertation on Toole, he focused on the parts of Toole's letters from Puerto Rico that were bigoted and mean-spirited, claiming that Toole was therefore a nihilist. MacLauchlin compares his letters with the events in his life at that time, giving a more complete picture of Toole's Puerto Rican experience. MacLauchlin may be white-washing, but I believe he does a better job of contextualizing the mood of the letters. Toole went through dark periods during his stint in the army.

Ken's correspondence with Simon and Schuster: Again, this book does a better job than others giving a clear timeline of the events surrounding Toole's attempts to publish Confederacy. MacLauchlin has interviewed more people involved, including George Deaux, who was a New Orleans writer from the same period who did get published at Simon and Schuster. In Ken Toole's final decline into madness, he was convinced that Deaux stole the plot of Confederacy for one of his novels. MacLauchlin does a nice job comparing Confederacy to the Deaux novel Superworm, which is probably the one that Toole imagined was a rip-off of Confederacy. MacLauchlin shows the similarities, but also the critical differences.

In describing Toole's final days, MacLauchlin corrects some errors in earlier accounts. There is no solid evidence that Toole visited Flannery O'Connor's house in Milledgeville, GA, on his final trip. Also, Hurricane Camille destroyed the papers that were in Toole's car at the time of his suicide. These two facts I had either never learned or had forgotten from previous biographies.

In Chapter 12, "Final Journey," MacLauchlin confronts directly Nevils and Hardy's weak evidence and speculation about the possibility that Toole was a closeted gay or that he suffered from alcoholism. The bottom line: there is no clear evidence for either one, though there is no clear evidence refuting either one.

An interesting detail is found in Chapter 13. In Walker Percy's original Forward to Confederacy, the most obvious interpretation of his story is that he read the novel right after getting it from Thelma, but he doesn't actually say so. In the Nevils and Hardy book, they seem to dramatize what they think happened with the Percys, but they do not cite sources. In their version, Walker reads it first, then he asks his wife Bunt to read it. MacLauchlin, on the other hand, tells a very different story, one in which Bunt reads the book first. It is only after she approves it that Walker starts reading. And MacLauchlin's reference is an interview he conducted with Bunt Percy herself. Again, this underlines why this is the definitive biography.

In the final chapters, there are no great surprises in comparison to other books about Toole. However, MacLauchlin does review literary scholarship on Toole, including citing one of my own papers. He makes the case that Toole's accomplishment genuinely transcends his circumstances and becomes timeless without ignoring the flaws of Confederacy. He also offers his own interpretive insights on the novel.

To find my own site, search google for "John Kennedy Toole Research." As of April, 2012, it is the first hit.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Novel-like biography of a misunderstood novelist 5 April 2012
By Ben Anderson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Having just read Butterfly cover-to-cover, I can attest to its greatness. MacLauchlin carefully dissects each aspect of the sensationalism that has largely defined our understanding of Toole, resulting in both a thoroughly researched and more humanistic portrait. At the same time, MacLauchlin anchors much of the narrative with Confederacy providing a much-needed and appropriate central theme for a biography of a man ever-inspired by the wealth of characters around him. MacLauchlin's passion for writing, Toole, and New Orleans come together beautifully here to create a biography that reads more like a novel - Toole newcomers and scholars alike will likely re-discover Toole through Butterfly and find it hard to put down!
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
A Literary "Bromance" 24 July 2013
By J. T. Cox - Published on
Cory MacLauchlin has helped expand our knowledge of John Kennedy Toole with "Butterfly in the Typewriter." The book is well-researched, grounded in primary source material (Toole's papers) together with extensive interviews of friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances of Toole's, as well as previously published books and articles. Utilizing these materials, he has put together the most detailed portrait to date of the enigmatic New Orleans writer. MacLauchlin's handling of the Gottlieb affair and Toole's descent into mental illness and suicide makes for especially compelling reading, and he does an excellent job pointing to those people and experiences in Toole's background that lead inexorably to the characters and themes in "Confederacy of Dunces."

"Butterfly in the Typewriter," however, has one wart on its nose that I found bothersome as a reader: the author's close emotional proximity to the subject. The book reads much more like hagiography than biography. From it's introduction through its concluding remarks, MacLauchlin idolizes Toole on the page, perpetually extolling him as well as championing him against what he sees as the more unsavory assertions in circulation about aspects of Toole's personal life (God forbid Toole may have been gay or bi-sexual, but don't worry; MacLauchlin mounts a spirited defense). Everything Toole does through the MacLauchlin prism, he does with "precision," "scholarship," "erudition," and, of course, "humor." By the time I had finished the first five chapters, I found myself marveling over the absence of a triumphal potty-training story, informing the reader that Toole had started using the toilet at a mere 6 weeks of age, balancing his delicate, infant corpulence on the ancient porcelain seat, and defecating with precision, scholarship, erudition, and, of course, humor.

To say that MacLauchlin's prose is effusive would be an exercise in understatement. Clichés abound; allusions run amok. I was incredulous, frankly, that many of these forays into the realm of kitsch were not excised by MacLauchlin's editor, Ben Schafer. To the contrary, Schafer apparently thought one of these eyebrow raisers so worthy as to be suitable for the dust jacket: " he cranked away at the typewriter in his small private room, as that fluttering music of the novelist danced out of the open windows, borne aloft in the Caribbean breeze, he ascended to his pinnacle moment" (p. 2). Really? If you say so.

For me, this kind of rhetorical wax job diminishes the subject in what is ostensibly a serious biography, and one that is in nearly every respect a laudable and hard-won labor of scholarship. And it's for this reason that I cannot praise this book as enthusiastically as I would be otherwise inclined.

Issues of style and creative license aside, however, "Butterfly" is very much worth the price of admission. It is an engaging narrative, enthusiastically conveyed, and one cannot help but smile at the starry-eyed zeal of its author. It is a book whose merits far outweigh its stylistic shortcomings, and I can recommend it with a single caveat: read it, enjoy it, and absorb it. Just be careful what you quote from it...
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
The price paid (and rewards earned) by a smart, defiant misfit 21 April 2012
By John L Murphy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
As an admirer of "Confederacy" when it appeared (in mass-market Grove paperback for me), the little I found that was marketed back then about John Kennedy Toole tended towards the tortured artist. Walker Percy's promotion of his fellow Southern Catholic (if, being obviously of Irish descent, cradle and not convert) helped launch Toole's novel as if he was a creation as odd as Ignatius Reilly, his memorably offensive and irascibly brilliant protagonist. Toole's suicide in 1969 at 31, and the long delay before the novel was championed and won the Pulitzer in 1981, became associated with Toole's failure to get his novel published.

Cory MacLauchlin corrects this misattribution. He separates the novel's fate in publishing from that of its author three years later. He handles the coverage of Toole in the "popular media" and places it against the legacy that his mother took on of protecting her son's reputation. He notes the sympathy of the critics who found in Toole's tragedy a ready myth. He removes blame from Simon and Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb; he does not speculate as many have about Toole's alleged homosexuality. Necessarily, he patiently delves into the mental illness which perhaps, left undiagnosed, hastened Toole's inability to cope. Faced with his demanding mother Thelma and his namesake father's own decline, Toole could not endure the future. He came back from Puerto Rico where he had taught Army draftees. The freedom he had in New York City during grad school, in traveling, in teaching, was contrasted with his family and his responsibility. He looked at his parents; he left after his Christmas break from teaching. The road trip through the South appears mysterious. But, two months later as Mardi Gras came and went, apparently on the way back towards New Orleans, he ended his life.

As a fellow English instructor at a perhaps less-heralded institution (as am I), MacLauchlin finds a match in Toole. Those of us who teach others how to read and write better in modest classrooms understand the challenges and the satire inherent in these daily duties. (As an aside, it shows how talented Toole was--without finishing a Ph.D. at Columbia, he was offered a professorship, at 22, at Hunter College.) The correspondence and the mimicry about his earnest or hapless peers recall Flannery O'Connor (even if he did not enter her house alas, on his last journey, contrary to rumor); the academic send-ups of his medievalist colleague Bobby Byrne who teaches Boethius to every class, even frosh comp, certainly shows how Toole found ready humor and a model for Byrne and his New Orleans misfits who populated his fiction, his work, and his leisure in his hometown.

Toole could be cruel; MacLauchlin quotes, for instance, from a letter to his parents insulting two "haystacks": the "gray-white, sandy, freckled, powdery" skins and awful dinner from the skeletal, "appalling" parents of his fellow instructor. MacLauchlin notes how sustaining Ignatius Reilly took a tool on the novelist. His own arrogance as he balanced Army life and teaching with investing so much energy into what became far too late a cult novel demonstrates the uneasy relationships he had with others, male and female, and the frustrations with modern life endured by him and his colleagues and creations.

The biographer takes the novelist on his own terms. Drawn from five years of archival research and enhanced by many photos, this merges a straightforward account of his restless life with his swerves between confidence and despair. As a "self-marginalized intellectual," Toole seems to have inherited some of his parents' ambition (his father for school, his mother for the stage) along with the thwarting of early promise. Raised the off-beat New Orleans scene, Tulane, boho and Beats-era New York, and Army life in Puerto Rico shaped him. The novel he started in 1963 drew his friends and experiences into his fiction. Inextricably, its fate overshadowed his own journey, paranoia grew, and he silenced his suffering on a back road, at the end of March 1969, outside Biloxi.

MacLauchlin tells the story efficiently, if at times with his own overly effusive prose championing his subject. After all, the absurd and caricatured in Toole's vision about a fat man in his native city obsessed with the decline of humanity since the Middle Ages lends itself to its own eccentricity. That inventive quirk is why we remember Toole and his preening, overbearing, and defiantly literate creations today.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Tragedy of a Genius 4 Feb. 2013
By Sam Sattler - Published on
I had never heard of John Kennedy Toole the day that the cover of A Confederacy of Dunces caught my eye on the Harvard Book Store bargain table. That cover was so different from everything else there that it was the first thing I picked up, and I had the feeling the book was going to be special. And, it turns out that I was correct. A Confederacy of Dunces is a brilliant novel, and it started my thirty-year fascination with its author, a man who committed suicide at age 31 in 1969, eleven years before his Pulitzer Prize winning novel was even published.

But, largely because of how Toole's mother solely controlled the documents pertaining to her son, destroying those that did not support the image she preferred, knowing what to believe about the author's life has not been easy. Butterfly in the Typewriter, the new John Kennedy Toole biography by Cory MacLauchlin, goes a long way in separating the myth created by Thelma, Toole's mother, from the reality of the man's brief life.

Toole is, of course, a New Orleans native, and the city was as important to him as anything else in his life ever would be. Despite working and studying in places as varied as New York City and rural Louisiana, the city was forever in his blood. Although it provided him with real-life representations of what would become the key characters of his literary masterpiece, living there with his parents into his thirties was also a constant reminder of his failures. And, finally, after a row with Thelma, John Kennedy Toole ended the last road trip of his life on a deserted road outside Biloxi, Mississippi by inhaling the exhaust fumes from his car until he was dead.

Butterfly in the Typewriter follows Toole's brief journey from birth; through the school years that culminated in degrees from Tulane and Columbia University; to his jobs as an English teacher; and, completing the cycle, back to living with - and financially supporting - his parents in their New Orleans home. Along the way, we meet his friends and colleagues, and learn much about his family, including its history of mental illness.

Toole's story is complicated by his mother's unfortunate habit of editing it for her own purposes (and glory), but it would have been complicated enough even without her meddling. To Thelma's everlasting credit, there is no doubt that, without her efforts, the world would never have heard of A Confederacy of Dunces. She even, with $100,000 of royalty money from the book, established the John Kennedy Toole scholarship at Tulane, a fund that, according to MacLauchlin, is worth more than $1 million today.

Butterfly in the Typewriter is an evenhanded biography, one that tries to tell all sides of the story while minimizing speculation and rumor (or at least pointing them out as such). Sadly, though, it appears that we will never know the whole truth of John Kennedy Toole because all we have left is Thelma Toole's edited version of who he was. We know that she destroyed his suicide note and other documents that would have certainly offered insights into her son's mind. And, now that all existing documents have been studied, and most of those to whom Toole was closest have taken their secrets to the grave, Butterfly in the Typewriter may just be as good as it ever gets.
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