In the last seven months I would have to say we’ve covered any number of topics including religion, politics, my life, my sons, my pets, and music. You know more about me than either of my ex-wives ever knew, and they could read exceptionally well, so let’s try something different … let’s talk literature.
Wait, before you put the newspaper down because you’re afraid I’m going to go into some diatribe on the value of the moral and ethical concerns of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or the synthesis of neoclassicism and romanticism in the works of James Fennimore Cooper (I actually wrote that last one for my thesis, a real page turner I promise), it’s not like that at all.
I want to turn you on to something different, an absurdist novel written by one of those rare finds, a storyteller. The ability to tell enthralling stories seems to be a genetic quality of Southerners, because as you all know, when you get one of us to spinning a yarn you never know where it’s going to lead, but it’s almost always worth the ride. This particular read is especially interesting, not only because of the story but the story behind the story.
John Kennedy Toole was a novelist from New Orleans and a professor of arcane medieval literature with a fertile mind. Like most creative minds he existed beyond the pale with a view of the world just off-center from the rest of it, always seeing what he felt was the unadulterated version of man, not just as a being or animal but as a collection of ethics and morals. Like most novelists, musicians, artists, and poets he didn’t fit in and suffered a terrible mental anguish due to his inability to reconcile what he envisioned and reality.
Toole took his own life on March 26, 1969, following a lifelong struggle with depression or as Poe may have put it best, “words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” In the end, at the age of 32, Toole’s life came to an end and as far as the world knew he left no mark. But like all good Southern men, he had a Momma that wouldn’t let it go.
Following her son’s death, Toole’s mother began to incessantly pester an author by the name of Walker Percy. You may not have read some of his work but it’s well worth the time, I assure you. The author’s mother had found a smeared carbon copy of a manuscript tucked away in one of Toole’s drawers and she was convinced it was the best thing she had ever read.
For what Percy would later say was too long, he put her off, convinced she was unduly influenced by her son’s death and the fact it was her child’s work … until he read it.
Not much later, A Confederacy of Dunces was in print and the world was introduced to Ignatius Riley, a repugnant, overly educated glob of pomposity whose soliloquies on the state of his fellow man is made ludicrous by his own daily existence. Characters come into the story through the strangest of circumstances, strange bedfellows are created, and throughout you find yourself unable to turn away from the next disastrous interaction in and out of The French Quarter.
Toole was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature posthumously in 1981.
There are few who know the struggles of artists within their own minds and many are taken far too soon (unfortunately by their own hand in many cases), but I suppose for me that may be part of the reason I find such a connection to this novel. Not only do I find its humor almost too much to stand, having read it at least a dozen times, but there’s something more.
I feel a certain sadness, a sorrow for Toole, thinking for one moment he checked out of this life, sure he left nothing of note behind when it was a mere feet away, fading to dusty ink on crumpled, creased and stained paper. Had he ever submitted the manuscript itself would that have changed his history? Or does the mystique of the pained and tortured artist draw us more?
In today’s time, if you can string enough sentences together and can reproduce the same story time and again from a blueprint, well you will be successful … as long as you are willing to sacrifice art for mass production. No, guys like Toole don’t survive in a world like that.
None of us do.