John Kennedy Toole, the author of the posthumously published novel A Confederacy of Dunces, took his own life on March 26, 1969, at the age of 31. He had laboured over his serio-comic novel of an eccentric New Orleans loner for years but couldn’t get it published, at least not without making changes that he was unwilling to make.
After Toole’s death his mother, Thelma, continued to pursue publishers, finally finding a receptive ally in novelist Walker Percy who helped get the book published by Louisiana State University Press in 1980. A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize the following year and is now considered to be a classic of Southern literature.
Toole wrote the novel in 1963 while he was in the US Army stationed in Puerto Rico teaching English to local recruits. It is the picaresque story of Ignatius J. Riley, an over-educated lummox who lives with his mother in New Orleans and despises the modern world and its lack of what he calls “geometry and theology.”
In his Preface to the novel Percy calls Riley a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.”
Toole himself lived off and on with his eccentric and domineering mother who never wavered in her belief that her son was a genius. Ignatius Riley is based partly on Toole’s own worst feelings about himself during his many periods of depression and on his slovenly and highly opinionated friend Bob Byrne, a college professor who liked to wear a ratty Dearstocker hunting cap.
Toole had a high IQ and won a scholarship to Tulane University and went on to earn a Masters degree from Columbia University and worked toward a PhD. He taught English literature at several colleges and was a popular professor until his mental instability and drinking made him unemployable.
By 1969 he was despondent about his stalled academic career and his failure to get his novel published. After a fight with his mother he withdrew his savings from the bank and took off on a final road trip to California and to Midgeville, Georgia, the hometown of his favourite writer, Flannery O’Connor, who had died five years earlier.
On the road he stayed out of contact with family and friends. On March 26 he ran a hose from the gaspipe of his car into the interior and died from asphyxiation. He left a suicide note which his mother destroyed.
I read A Confederacy of Dunces when it first came out and absolutely adored it. I’ve re-read it since and it still makes me laugh and wince just to think about it.