John Kennedy Toole
John Kennedy Toole
Tragic life, comic novelist
It's a great story that has been told many times and it's all true.
Novelist Walker Percy was teaching at New Orleans' Loyola University in 1976 when he started being hounded by a woman who wanted him to read a manuscript written by her late son over a decade earlier. It was a great novel, she said. Percy tried to get rid of her but she persisted, basically stalking him, until he agreed to look at it. The manuscript was a messy carbon copy. He hoped to read just a few paragraphs before dismissing the work, but to his amazement he found himself reading on and on. He helped get A Confederacy of Dunces published in 1980, and it became a publishing sensation, winning a Pulitzer Prize twelve years after the author's death. It has also won a fanatical following.
The novel describes the comic adventures of a gigantically fat, intellectually twisted young man, Ignatius J. Reilly, who lives and battles with his mother. Occasionally he sallies from their apartment to take assorted jobs where he proceeds to turn everyone's life upside down.
Now, the kicker is, it was discovered the grotesque novel was somewhat autobiographical—minus the comedy. Toole who killed himself in 1969 had worked at various jobs, considered his life a failure and was constantly at odds with his domineering, nutty mother. Yes, the same mother who championed his work after his death, got him published and devoted the rest of her life to proclaiming her son's genius. In Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole, the biography which tracked down the details of the short and hitherto little-known life, Mrs. Toole comes across as a terror who practically drove her son to suicide.
A Confederacy of Dunces has been in development as a movie almost since the book was published but is now scheduled for release in 2003 with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Ignatius.
An earlier and quite different novel, The Neon Bible, also unpublished during the author's life, has its avid fans too but is considered by critics an immature work of Toole's teen years. It was published in 1989 and made into a film in 1996.