A Confederation of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole – The Irish Times
When my friend and mentor, Kent Carroll, asked me to co-write with him a novel based on the remarkable events behind the making of John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces, I was immediately intrigued.
Ignatius Reilly, the careless, pontificating misanthrope who embarks on one misadventure after another, was a different kind of hero. The book became a New York Times bestseller, sold millions of copies, inspired John Belushi, Will Ferrell and Steven Soderbergh, and earned a place among the 10 most influential works of American literature.
There were a handful of biographies about Toole, who sadly committed suicide before the world met Ignatius, but no one had attempted the backstory of A Confederacy of Dunces through a new lens. Little was known about the genesis of Ignatius Reilly, the circumstances that led to his creator’s suicide, or Thelma Toole’s campaign to have her son’s book published posthumously.
The more Kent and I talked about it, the more excited we became. Kent was also part of the book’s story. He was the young editor of Grove Press who had acquired A Confederacy of Dunces 40 years earlier and led it to fame. We had already worked together on many books, two of which became New York Times bestsellers: my memoir, Please Stop Laughing at Me… which was a catalyst for the anti-bullying movement in America and placed me at the forefront of the national response, a role in which I am still engaged; and we co-wrote Both of Us, movie star Ryan O’Neal’s memoir of his romance with Farrah Fawcett. We had encountered more than our share of surprises in bringing these books to life, but nothing could have prepared us for me, John Kennedy Toole.
Giving Toole a voice would become a years-long odyssey that, as we delved deeper into the research, often felt like Alice was going down the rabbit hole – police records and coroner’s reports missing, rumors of a Hollywood curse, the search for a long-lost manuscript, compelling evidence that another author may have plagiarized Toole’s work and got away with it, interviews with witnesses who inexplicably changed their stories. We incorporated all of that into the story.
Over time, Toole started to feel like a friend, so much so that when Kent and I talk, I always refer to Toole as “Kenny.” This book started as a biography of a novel. After meticulously going through everything in Toole’s archives at Tulane, from scribbles on tiny scraps of paper, journal entries, letters, and postcards, to childhood homework, poetry, and doodles , and trips to the places Toole had been, trying to retrace his steps. , get inside his head, understand every phase of his life, learned how a character can become a part of you and you him, that’s what Kent and I believe happened to Kenny with Ignatius Reilly .
When I introduced the character of Ignatius in our book, Kent and I weren’t sure it would work. Each book requires a series of careful decisions on the part of the author and when two authors are involved, these questions take on more weight. We went back and forth on whether Ignatius making periodic appearances helped or hurt the story, but the pull of having him there was so strong, it was as if Kenny himself was insisting on it, so much so that it would wake me up at night. A famous author once told Kent that he had trouble sleeping because his characters weren’t silent. I knew what he meant and I suspect Kenny too.
I, John Kennedy Toole is informed by facts but his truth comes from something outside of himself, a voice that I like to believe is Kenny, finally asking to be heard. We cover Toole’s early years in New Orleans, his difficult teenage years, and his valiant efforts to become his own man despite the financial and emotional burden of his parents’ responsibility. We trace his college career that he began at age 16, his days as a graduate student in New York, the love affair that didn’t last and the discontent that permeated his life. We reveal the fragile father, the narcissistic mother, and how Toole was the devoted son caught in the eye of a storm. The novel also bridges the gaps between Toole’s struggle to find a publisher and what led him to that lonely stretch of road in Biloxi where he breathed his last.
The popular consensus is that Toole was falling into mental illness and committed suicide out of desperation because Simon & Schuster, after three years of tricking him into believing they would publish his book, did not. We argue that Toole sacrificed his life so that his book and his characters could live on, much like a parent dies for their children. We have found multiple references in Toole’s personal archives to writers he admired, such as Flannery O’Connor and Emily Dickinson, who were not fully appreciated until after their departure. We believe this may have been the real inspiration behind his suicide.
We also believe Toole may have been working on another novel before his death and the protagonist was based on a character he created named Humphrey Wildblood who predates Ignatius Reilly. I found it strewn all over the pages of one of Toole’s notebooks. Toole loved this character and from what I gleaned from conversations with Toole’s best friend, all indicators point to another book, unfinished somewhere, as a real possibility.
Kent and I are often asked if we believe the rumors that A Confederacy of Dunces has a Hollywood curse. Steven Soderberg was the first filmmaker to suggest it out loud, but many others have wondered. There have been failed attempts over four decades involving some of Hollywood’s biggest names trying to turn the book into a movie. Most of the actors who signed on to play Ignatius suddenly dropped dead before production began, and there were other strange occurrences that fueled the rumor of a curse. We ask the question in I, John Kennedy Toole – what if some books were better never made into movies? JD Salinger may have had the right idea when he refused to sell the film rights to A Catcher in the Rye.
We also explore if Toole may have been onto something when he started complaining to anyone who would listen that another author had plagiarized his work. Shortly after his last correspondence with Simon & Schuster, they published a novel by George Deaux, titled Superworm, in which the main character inexplicably resembles Ignatius Reilly. Kent and I have read the two books side by side and can’t help but wonder if perhaps Toole’s unpublished work has made its way to Deaux.
Although the research for this book yielded some wonderful surprises, the one that still baffles Kent and me the most was a telephone conversation with the editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster who pulled the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces out of the boiled and championed him for the publisher who would eventually correspond with Toole for three years. His name comes up several times in these letters. In one, in which Toole laments an unfortunate visit to their New York offices, she is specifically referenced. When I spoke to her, she even denied working there at the time.
Another compelling mystery is where Toole went in the three months before his death. When his body was found there was evidence that he had been to Hearst Castle in California and may have visited Andalucia in Georgia, the home of Flannery O’Connor. We offer a possible scenario of this trip. We suspect that he may have written a suicide note during this trip and that his mother Thelma destroyed it. Toole was a prolific writer of letters. His archives are full of written correspondence ranging from the profound to the whimsical, and to assume that he wrote this vehemently in all other areas of his life but did not write a suicide note is counterintuitive to everything we know. on this man.
If A Confederacy of Dunces had been published in the 1960s and not nearly two decades later in 1980, would it have won The Pulitzer and become an American classic? Many authors died thinking that their work would never be read to become legends after their demise. Toole admired them. Would he have been right about posthumous fame? We may never know anything for sure, except this: Kenny, if there’s anything else you want to tell us, we’re listening.
Jodee Blanco is a New York Times bestselling author and speaker. She lives in Chicago.jodeeblanco.com