A Much Rejected Novel Creates a Literary Sensation Thanks to An Indomitable Mother

UPDATED 09/22/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/22/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
Jonathan Swift

When John Kennedy Toole borrowed the title of his only published novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, from Dean Swift's bleak opinion of mankind, he also wrote an ironic appraisal of both his life and the most bizarre publishing story of 1980. Toole actually finished his novel 17 years ago, then became increasingly depressed by his failure to have it published. Finally, on March 26, 1969, Toole ran a hose from the exhaust of his white Chevy into the car and died of carbon monoxide poisoning at age 31.

The novel might have disappeared with him except for his indomitable, if eccentric, mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, now 79. For seven years she sent the increasingly tattered and smeared manuscript to publishers, eight in all. "Every time it came back, I died a little," she says. Then, in 1976, she cornered author Walker (The Second Coming) Percy in his office and announced, "Mr. Percy, here is a masterpiece!" Percy reluctantly agreed to look at a few pages, but "read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement: Surely it was not possible that it was so good."

It was. Percy convinced Louisiana State University Press to publish Dunces, a comic tour de force set in New Orleans that has been compared to such modern best-sellers as Catch-22 and The World According to Garp and is now in its fifth printing. The novel has stirred considerable bemusement over some of its Dickens-like characterizations. The hero of Dunces is Ignatius Reilly, a grotesquely fat, Southern medievalist who subsists on hot dogs and has "the body odor of old tea." His long-suffering mother, Irene, is a maroon-haired dimwit who is the object of some of the author's most satiric thrusts. Ignatius was clearly patterned in part on Toole's friend Bobby Byrne, a medievalist at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, where Toole taught in 1959-60. The once portly Byrne admits to some resemblance. "I don't much care for the 20th century, that's true," he says. "And if you must know, I eat weenies, and I play the lute. But I am not Ignatius."

Another friend, J.C. Broussard, a retired professor of English, sees the mother-son power struggle in the novel as an exaggerated version of Toole's own. "I really think that Ken was getting back at Mrs. Toole in the book," Broussard says. "She's a megalomaniac." Thelma scoffs at such interpretations. "I'm highly cultured," she protests and points out that she studied drama for 16 years and piano for 10 before marrying John Toole, a car salesman, who died of a stroke in 1972.

Toole was a precocious child. Skipping first and fourth grades, he entered Tulane on a scholarship at 16. After graduating in 1958, he got his M.A. in English from Columbia the following year. Toole wrote Dunces in 1962 and '63 while an Army corporal in Puerto Rico. The same year he began corresponding with Robert Gottlieb, then at Simon and Schuster and now editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf, about publishing the book. "Gottlieb is the villain," erupts Mrs. Toole. "After keeping him rewriting for two years, Gottlieb told him the book could be improved, but it wouldn't sell."

Gottlieb claims he remembers nothing about the correspondence, which ended in 1966. "I gather the author killed himself three years after our last letter," he notes. "So it's hard for me to believe that I bear any responsibility for his death. But his mother must have suffered terribly, and I can understand how she might turn her pain against another person."

In 1968 Toole was teaching at St. Mary's Dominican College in New Orleans, studying for a Ph.D. at Tulane and living with his parents. After his novel was rejected by Simon and Schuster, Thelma remembers, "He didn't talk much. There was a sadness." Toole resigned his teaching position and disappeared for two months, first flying to San Simeon, Calif., to see Hearst's castle, then making a pilgrimage to the home of a literary idol, Flannery O'Connor, in Milledgeville, Ga. His body was found soon after, in Biloxi, Miss. "My whole world collapsed," says Mrs. Toole. Does she now feel vindicated? "For this to come out of the worst heartache, the worst tragedy, is overwhelming," she says. Yet it has brought no consolation. "Music, literature and my sense of humor keep me afloat," she concludes. "But my life is ashes and sawdust."

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