BUTTERFLY IN THE TYPEWRITER: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of “A Confederacy of Dunces.” By Cory MacLauchlin. Da Capo Press. 352 pages. $26.
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head.”
So begins John Kennedy Toole’s romp through the colorful contradictions and serious absurdities that breathe life into both his immortal literary creation, Ignatius Reilly, and his beloved New Orleans.
It’s an inauspicious beginning but one that acutely stages the full-on satire of Toole’s posthumously published “A Confederacy of Dunces” (1981), the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel with an unmatched gift for comic seriousness.
Toole killed himself at the age of 32, having never witnessed the overwhelmingly positive critical response of his masterwork and having only suffered — truly suffered — the disappointments of continued rejection.
Thus the biographer’s dilemmas: how to best write a literary life of an author who never knew that he had indeed achieved success? How do you tell the life story of a writer who had only aspired to the professional ranks but never saw that dream realized?
And perhaps toughest of all, how do you assess a literary career on the merits of a single published work?
Cory MacLauchlin does brilliantly in dispelling many of the “tortured artist”-type myths that have circulated since Toole’s suicide in 1969. Many of these myths, diligently enforced by his mother Thelma, who fought for years to have “Confederacy” published, have calcified and crept into critical assessments of Toole’s novel, blurring the lines between biography and fiction.
The Toole that MacLauchlin presents comes across as a precocious talent whose gift for writing and critical observation met squarely with a profound sense of familial responsibility and love for his native New Orleans.
“Butterfly in the Typewriter,” written stylishly though perhaps a bit too verbose at points, puts forth a remarkably balanced portrait of the artist as a young man, college and graduate student, up through his stint in the Army as an English instructor in Puerto Rico.
All the more racy, controversial and oftentimes fabricated elements of his backstory, the mainstay of Toole’s earlier biographers, give way to MacLauchlin’s intensely researched and well-sourced work in the archives and numerous interviews with those closest to Toole during his brief life.
While profound mental illness did indeed lead to Toole’s tragic death, “Butterfly in the Typewriter” gives the reader much more to consider when assessing the author and his novel that almost certainly deserves its critical status as a modern American classic.
While not the main thrust of the biography, MacLauchlin makes a rather convincing case for Toole’s exceptional talent as a writer and satirist. After finishing “Butterfly in the Typewriter,” one only wishes that Toole could have written more and enjoyed the success he certainly earned, only too late.
Reviewer Zach Weir, a writer based in Oxford, Ohio