Beyond Tragic Irony: The Life and Death of a Literary Enigma


By Cory MacLauchlin

Review by Emily Wojcik
May 28, 2012

Literary suicides hold a special place in our collective imagination, especially when they contain a healthy dose of irony. The story of John Kennedy Toole, author of the posthumously Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces, is a particularly intriguing case, as Cory MacLauchlin demonstrates in his new biography, Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Short, Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces. Not nearly prolific enough to have amassed a serious archive, and something of an enigma even to those who knew him best, Toole has remained a figure trapped in apocryphal cliché. His novel represented the culmination of a lifetime of thwarted literary genius, real and imagined, and his failed efforts at publication—following a lengthy and ultimately disappointing correspondence with Simon and Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb—ended in Toole’s suicide at the age of 31.

This rejection alone is not remarkable: James Joyce’s Ulysses faced years of rejection before Sylvia Beach proved brave enough to publish it, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was repeatedly rejected before he finally cut the first chapter. But Toole never got to see his novel triumph. Bewildered and frustrated, he snaked a garden hose from his car’s exhaust pipe into the driver’s seat window, and poisoned himself outside of Biloxi, Mississippi. Toole’s doting mother, the story goes, continued to shop his work around before finally sending it to Walker Percy, who loved it. With his support, Louisiana State University Press published the adventures of Ignatius Reilly to great acclaim, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The problem with such stories, and perhaps the reason they stick with us, is that this happy ending is profoundly unsatisfying. The timing is off, the punch line horribly unfunny. And so it is with great excitement that we might greet a new biography of Toole that offers resolution, an ending that pushes beyond irony and into something like closure. Butterfly in the Typewriter attempts to do this. The fact that it is not wholly successful reveals as much about the circumstances of Toole’s life and death as it does about those of us anxious for some insight into them.

There are very few biographies of Toole, a fact that MacLauchlin directly correlates to the tight grip Toole’s mother (now deceased) retained on her son’s legacy. If her letter to one aspiring biographer is any indication, they faced an uphill battle. MacLauchlin quotes her in his Introduction: Anyone wishing to write about her son “would have to live in my home for several months, perhaps, a year, perhaps, more; then, you would have to read carefully a wealth of material, pertaining to my son; then, you and I would decide what to use, what not to use; then, we would begin collaboration.”

MacLauchlin notes that this is indicative of “the difficult grounds a Toole biographer must navigate,” which is perhaps the most egregious understatement of the book. Toole’s mother surpassed “difficult” and headed straight for controlling, with ominous disregard for the generic and intellectual demands of biography. (It is worth noting that she burned Toole’s suicide note, and destroyed parts of his archive after his death.) Her ghost hovers over much of MacLauchlin’s book, coloring both his resolutely superficial readings of such moments, as well as his attempts to reveal the man behind the mythology.

Butterfly in the Typewriter walks the delicate line between respect for survivors of a tragedy (even those who have since passed away) and investigation into it. As the book progresses, however, the limitations of this strategy become clear: Difficult questions go unasked, interpretation is sacrificed in favor of propriety, and true investigative pursuit is abandoned. The result is frustrating and ambivalent, part uncritical tribute, part stymied psychological analysis, part baffled eulogy.

Which is a shame, because MacLauchlin has clearly done his homework. The biography is full of childhood reminiscences from long-lost friends whom he tracked down, old girlfriends, former teachers, and colleagues at the small colleges where Toole taught while pursuing his PhD at Columbia and then Tulane. He has read Toole’s lost poetry and even his undergraduate essays, going so far as to quote the Columbia University Student Handbook. He has a wealth of material at his disposal, but none of it amounts to much.

Toole’s mother died in 1984, yet she haunts the pages of this book as surely as if MacLauchlin had gone to live in her home and “collaborate” with her. From his birth through his college years, Toole is depicted as an angel child, a brilliant student beloved by classmates and teachers alike, a joy to his mother and to the world. MacLauchlin acknowledges that “[m]uch of what is known of him in these early days comes directly from his mother…”, for whom “he appears as a person of perfection.” Unfortunately, MacLauchlin does little to complicate or expand on this picture, filling in gaps with fluffy half-remembered anecdotes from childhood friends who remember his pranks and his cleverness. One brief mention of Toole’s unhappy struggle with his weight during elementary school is quickly glossed, a missed opportunity for insight into how a child so “perfect” became suicidal a mere two decades later.

Many such moments appear and then flicker out in Butterfy in the Typewriter: glancing references to troubling moments in Toole’s life dangle enticingly before the reader and then just as quickly disappear. We learn that his parents’ marriage was unhappy, but Mr. Toole—who appears to have suffered from what we might today recognize as anxiety disorder or chronic depression—drops conveniently out of sight for the remainder of the childhood chapters, resurfacing only towards the end of the book as Toole began to flirt with depression and paranoia.

A profound sense of unexamined loneliness shadows MacLauchlin’s retelling of Toole’s adolescence. In college, Toole was apparently a wunderkind, known for his impersonations of other students and faculty members. Yet what MacLauchlin sees as “scathing satirical wit” at the expense of fellow students and teachers often comes across as mean and petty complaint about a society into which Toole was only partially invited. Toole attempted to pledge a fraternity, but in a group photo of the men, his name is misspelled. A second, unpublished photo shows “many of the other men lean[ing] toward each other, signaling their alliances,” while “Toole awkwardly sits in the middle of the group, separate as if floating alone amid the ties of brotherhood.” Rather than pursue this sad image of a young man so isolated that his potential “brothers” don’t even bother to spell his name correctly, MacLauchlin tells us that it was a non-issue, since “[f]inancially, it made little sense” for Toole to join the fraternity when he lived so close to campus. Perhaps, though one suspects that this excuse was a convenient way to avoid further isolation and unhappiness.

And so it goes throughout Toole’s life: Toole embodied a schizophrenic existence in which he was simultaneously a bright star and barely able to manage crippling doubt. Things got worse as his family’s financial situation grew increasingly desperate; only when he escaped them to serve as an English instructor at Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico, did he manage to write Confederacy. This tension between familial demands and freedom was central to Toole’s life. He appears to have been most productive when far from his family, yet this does not register in MacLauchlin’s understanding of the writer.

Once MacLauchlin reaches the point when Confederacy of Dunces is completed, and Gottlieb begins working with Toole to wrestle it into something with “meaning,” the biography picks up steam. Mrs. Toole’s interception of Gottlieb’s notes amplified the failure that Toole already faced, and MacLauchlin pries more deeply into what he calls the “toxic mix” of failure, frustration, and self-doubt that consumed the struggling novelist.

Here MacLauchlin’s dual reading of the novel and Toole’s final months sparks the critical engagement that the biographer has until now avoided. He traces Toole’s disintegration into a paranoia similar to his father’s (who, we learn, once installed deadbolts on all of the exterior and interior doors in Toole’s one-bedroom bachelor pad for “protection” in the event of a break-in). Toole began to believe that Simon and Schuster had stolen Confederacy and published it under a colleague’s name. His inability to get his own work out proved too much for a man who, one suspects, had been utterly convinced of, and comforted by, assurances of his literary genius. Confederacy’s failure was his undoing, and MacLauchlin is at his best in this section, creating a devastating analysis of Toole’s narcissistic paranoia and subsequent suicide.

MacLauchlin concludes with a brief evisceration of a previous Toole biography, scolding those authors for doing what MacLauchlin should do more of, namely pushing beyond the genial stories of family and friends. He condemns them for suggesting that Toole was a closeted homosexual and entangled in an unhealthy relationship with his mother, yet his dismissal rests on flimsy ground: the women Toole dated “may contest suggestions” of his homosexuality; any suggestion of addiction or Oedipal complex is simply a “Hollywood” construction. He is far more convincing when he comes back to the text of Confederacy, positing parallels between it and Toole’s own life.

In the end, however, MacLauchlin is most perceptive when he notes, bluntly, that “suicide is not simple.” Those who suggest otherwise, who rush to point fingers at obsessive maternal figures or lonely fat children or unrequited and forbidden desires are perhaps no more right than those who rely upon the polite anecdotes of aged friends and colleagues to fill in the holes created by an overprotective mother. In such circumstance, one might be inclined to abandon the search for closure, for answers, and instead return to the work itself, as MacLauchlin ultimately does. Toole created a sprawling, unsettling, provocative novel, which turned the literary world on its head. In the end, that may have to suffice.

Emily Wojcik teaches English at the University of Connecticut and Holyoke Community College, and is assistant editor at Paris Press in Massachusetts.

Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Short, Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces 
Author: Cory MacLauchlin
Press: Da Capo Press
Pages: 288
Price: $26.00 U.S. / $29.00 CA
ISBN: 978-0-306-82040-3


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