On 26 March 1969, at the age of thirty-one, John Kennedy Toole pulled his car over on a quiet stretch of road
outside Biloxi, Mississippi, ran a length of hose from the exhaust pipe into the window and locked himself
inside. An envelope on the dashboard was marked `to my parents', the contents of the letter therein are
unknown since it was destroyed upon receipt by Thelma Ducoing Toole, his mother.
A tragic death typically marks the end of a life story; the case of Toole, however, is a rare instance in which the
reverse is true.
Toole had been lecturing at the University of Southwestern Louisiana while working toward a PhD in English
Literature. The money he
earned relieved the financial hardship of his family: his mother taught elocution on a sporadic basis and
his father was unable to find employment owing to his deafness.
A reserved character, few were aware that Toole had been working on the completion of his novel A
Confederacy of Dunces under the encouragement of publishing house Simon and Schuster. When his mother
came across the manuscript after his death, she made its publication her raison d'etre, submitting it to
eight publishers over a period of five years, all of whom rejected the piece. ``Every time it came back, I died a
little,'' she says of this period.
Convinced, however, of the value of this novel, she persevered and in 1976 came into contact with Walter Percy, a
lecturer in Creative Writing at Loyola University. Percy initially attempted to avoid this woman, perceiving her
as some kind of a lunatic. Following countless telephone calls in which he managed to evade her, she ultimately
turned up at his office demanding that he read the manuscript. Percy recalls this experience in the preface to the
``There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained - that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad
enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther...My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or
might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.
In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a
prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was
Percy convinced Louisiana State University Press to publish A Confederacy of Dunces and in 1981 it won the
Pulitzer Prize. Thelma Ducoing Toole was overjoyed, temporarily lifted from her crushing grief, and became something
of a celebrity. She campaigned for a screenplay to be written and oversaw the production of a little-known musical
based upon her son's novel.
Later, she recalled another piece, The Neon Bible, which Toole had written at the age of fifteen, and
considered its publication. Contrary to popular reports, however, in this instance she tirelessly campaigned to
prevent it being published. Her reasoning behind this apparently paradoxical decision lies within
Louisiana inheritance laws which stated that half of the royalties from the book would belong to the family of her husband's
brother. She managed to prevent the world from seeing The Neon Bible for three years after her own death,
entrusting it to the care of the writer W. Kenneth Holditch, who was later to describe these events in a lengthy
introduction to the novel.
In 1987, however, a New Orleans judge overruled her decision. The book was published in 1989 and went on to become a
bestseller, subsequently dramatised by Terence Davies for a movie funded by Channel Four Films.
Toole's work is extraordinary and, at times, transparently autobiographical. Both of his books revolve around the
existance of an only child with an overpowering mother and absent father. There are points in A Confederacy of
Dunces where he seems almost to predict the future of his own work: consider the following example, taken the novel,
(Chapter 14, page 333) in which Ignatius J. Reilly and his dubious partner Myrna Minkoff are hastily
packing to escape the fate that is planned for him:
He tried to drag her out of the front door, but she said, ``Don't you want to pack anything?''
``Oh, of course. There are all my notes and jottings. We must never let them fall into the hands of my mother. She
may make a fortune from them. It would be too ironic.'' They went into his room. ``By the way, you should know that
my mother is enjoying the questionable attentions of a fascist.''
It has often occurred to me that the title of this piece may also be an allusion to his own personal situation, taken as
it is from a quotation of Jonathan Swift:
``When a true genius appears in the world you will know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against
The reasons for Toole's suicide remain unclear. Received wisdom is that he could not cope with the rejection of his
masterpiece. His work, although delivered as humour, reveals a certain fragility and despair at human brutality along
with a recurring sense of persecution. All
that is certain is that if he could be remembered as one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century based on the
publication of the first of his novels, we have been denied forever an invaluable body of work.