The story of how John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces came to be published is as famous as the novel itself. It was rejected by publishers in the mid-1960s, specifically by superstar editor Robert Gottlieb after much back and forth with the author on edits. A few years later Toole took his own life, and only his mother Thelma’s persistence saw the novel published posthumously in 1980. It won the Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since.
Do we, then, need a “non-fiction novel” about Toole’s life and struggles? Kent Carroll – who was involved in Dunces’ paperback publication – and Jodee Blanco think so. They originally set out to write a straight biography, but “there wasn’t enough information”, according to Carroll. The fact that they went ahead anyway – inventing what they didn’t know – doesn’t fill the reader with confidence.
But it’s a sprightly, readable account, which jumps around from viewpoint to viewpoint and from year to year, with cultural references spliced in either clunkily or tongue-in-cheekily. “The year is 1969. Gas is 33 cents a gallon and young people are wearing bell-bottom jeans and tie-dyed shirts.” “The year is 2003. Arnold Schwarzenegger is elected governor of California…”
Among the inventions is the concept of giving the young Toole (“Kenny”) a sort of devil-on-his-shoulder alter ego in his monstrous creation, Ignatius J Reilly, the antihero of Dunces. Another is creating a fictional reporter, Bill Greeley, who exists largely to enable the authors to write about the cursed attempts over the decades to make a film of Dunces. They even suggest the existence (reported by family members) of an unfinished novel, Humphrey Wildblood, lost when Toole’s house was sold.
Other elements are straighter, like the portrayal of mother Thelma, who was domineering but without whom (“I walk in this world for my son”) Toole’s book would have remained unknown, and of Gottlieb. He has accused Thelma of running an anti-Semitic campaign against him when he rejected Dunces (she called him “a Jewish creature … not a man. Not a human being.”). Of this the book makes only glancing reference, which may tell you all you need to know about how comprehensive it is. Its value, rather, is as a diverting curio that can carry us back to a modern classic.