I still remember the first time I read "Confederacy of Dunces" lying on the bed in my college dorm room, kicking my feet laughing. I have returned to it many times and still consider it the funniest book ever.
So when I saw the biography of J.K. Toole, the author and suicide, in my local bookstore I had to buy it. I did not anticipate, though, being so swept up. The authors do an outstanding job compiling the minute details of Toole's too-short life, which could not have been easy since he was unknown and until well after his death. I was surprised how interested I could be in his grade school years-- although that is in large part owed to my fascination with Toole going in.
The key mystery to me has always been about Toole's relationship with Robert Gottlieb. For an unpublished novelist (indeed he had barely published anything) to gain the attention of perhaps the leading book editor of his genration is incredible. What happened? Why was it not published?
It's hard to fault Gottlieb. His letters-- reproduced over his own initial objoections-- show his committment to the book. On the other hand, his objections to the book-- that it lacked "meaning"-- were, however sincere, maddeningly unhelpful and unspecific, as he admitted.
Thelma Toole is presented as a domineering, overbearing, grandiose nutcase. But her successful effort to finally have the book published shows a great strength. It's actually inspiring.
Toole eventually killed himself after despainring of the book ever being published. This "failure" hardly explains his act-- how many failed authors go on with their lives or write a second book that is published? Suggestions are made about his homosexulaty (closeted) and his finances (bad since he had to support his parents). Neither is enough. But the events leading to the tragedy, the descent into madness, are touchingly detailed.
One mystery remains. Nevils and Hardy, also first time authors, show that Toole was an excellent student, though hardly a world-beater when he ventured beyond New Orleans. They reproduce many of his letters. While the letters are fine, there is not a single inkling of either the prose style, the imagination, or the comedy that is on every page of Toole's novel. Though we are told constantly how funny Toole was in real life, we never see it. Where did the genius in the book spring from, and why was it not eviedent in any of his other work?
A chilling thought occurred to me towards the end of the book. The authors reproduce a letter from Thelma Toole to her lawyer. Shen concludes a trademark harangue: "My nervous system is drained by this harrwoing legal matter." That's Ignatius all over.
Is it possible that Thelma had a hand in the book or was-- even weirder-- it's ghostwriter? It's a bizzare notion and I have not one shred of evidence to back it up. But throughout the biography, Thelma is portrayed as not of the sensibility to even appreciate the book or its humor. Yet she is the one person-- including J.K. Toole-- who had the strength and faith to see the project through.
In the end, I recommend "Ignatius Rising" to anyone who read "Confederacy" and loved it. As to those who read it and did not love it, they lack all sense of taste or decency. As to those who never read the novel, read it first, then read the biography of the tragic author who (probably) created it.