Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Done too soon

A lot of press has recently been given to the untimely death of Aaron Swartz. Regardless of his legal issues (and I'm not getting into them) he was obviously a brilliant mind, gone too soon.

But I want to tell you about one you may have never heard of.

John Kennedy Toole (born 1937), from an early age, was an unquestionably brilliant individual. He received excellent marks in high school, graduated with honors from Tulane university (to which he'd received a full scholarship at age 17) and got a masters degree from Columbia. He went on to become a professor at Hunter College in New York, becoming (at age 22) the youngest professor in the institution's history.

In 1961 he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Puerto Rico, teaching English to local recruits. There he began writing a remarkable novel. He left the military in 1963, and completed the book in 1964.

Over the next several years he submitted it to 3 publishers, all of whom rejected it. The disappointments led to him becoming despondent, than an alcoholic, and then paranoid. He was convinced he was being followed and frequently searched his home for electronic mind-reading devices. At one point he began having severe headaches, but refused to see a neurologist (speaking as a neurologist, the personality changes and headaches raise a number of diagnostic possibilities, but I'm not going to address that further).

In 1969 he went on a long drive across the country, finally ending in Biloxi, Mississippi. There, in March, he committed suicide by running a garden hose from his car's exhaust through the window. He left a suicide note which his mother read, then destroyed. He was 31 years old.

His rejected manuscript sat, untouched, on an armoire in his old room at his parent's house. In 1971 his mother tried again to have it published - only to collect 7 more rejections over the next 5 years (modern readers may remember that 2 major studios - United Artists and Universal - both rejected the script for Star Wars during this same time frame as having no potential for success).

In 1976 author Walker Percy was teaching at Loyola University New Orleans. Toole's mother wrote and called him, to the extent that he complained to his wife about her. He tried to dodge her, but at one point she actually pushed her way into his office with the single precious copy of the manuscript. He finally agreed to look at it, figuring it would be so awful that after a few pages he'd be done with it.

He was wrong.

As he wrote later, "I 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, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good."

Walker Percy was, in the end, stunned by the book, and put his own efforts into getting it published. It finally went to press in 1980. In 1981 it won a Pulitzer Prize, 12 years after John Toole had taken his own life

The book is "A Confederacy of Dunces" and is, in my experience, a love-it-or-hate-it-work. I personally love it. It's the story of one of the most despicable protagonists in English literature trying to find a way to earn money in the early 1960's. It switches randomly between a number of wildly different threads, giving no real clue why. As the story progresses they become gradually tied together, finally ending in one hysterical scene which predated similar endings in Seinfeld by almost 30 years.

Some of you won't like the book. It's not for everyone. But for those who enjoy it, it's a masterpiece.

John Toole only had one other book published (after the success of Confederacy of Dunces) called The Neon Bible. It was written when he was a teenager, and is the only other work we have from this brilliant, but obviously sadly sick, individual. And we will never know what else he might have written if his life hadn't ended so early.


Sara / Aryanhwy said...

A Confederacy of Dunces was one of the books that my husband brought to our marriage. I started it once, a few years back, but couldn't really get in to it. Someday I'll try again, but I guess I'm one of the few people for whom it was an "eh".

Anonymous said...

One of all-time favorite books, honestly laughed so hard I cried. Husband loved it, best friend hated it. Thanks for honoring him.

Jennifer McDonald said...

My uncle recommended the book to me when I was in grade 10. I read it, hated the first chapter, but had already told my teacher I was going to do a book report about it so I had to keep going. By the end of chapter 2 I couldn't put it down, and it remains my all-time favourite book.

Anonymous said...

It's funny you mention this, because I'm in the process of reading it for the first time right now. I'm still pretty on the fence about it, but a book has to be really bad for me not to finish it.

Anonymous said...

Master and Margarita is another love it or hate it book to try...
the devil made me do it

Ms. Donna said...

Put me in hte "meh" camp. It is a good book, but it did not tickle the way it does for many.

Just call me brain-damaged.

Phaedrus said...

I agree that it's a masterpiece. One of my favorite games is trying to cast it as a movie. Over the years, the actors change, but I still think John Candy woulda been a great Ignatius.

heidikins said...

I didn't really like A Confederacy of Dunces, like, at all. I can appreciate the skill in Toole's writing, but I really really hated the book.


bunkywise said...

I remember a friend recommending it years ago but somehow I never picked it up. Since everyone is so divergent in opinion, I will check the library instead of Amazon!

Whelk Lad! said...

How can anyone not love "A Confederacy of Dunces?" Oh, my valve... I need to sit down and have a cold Dr. Nut... what do you mean, they don't make Dr. Nut anymore?

Anonymous said...

Being from New Orleans the characters and places were familiar. Truly a work of a genius. In fact, I think I may have met up with him once or twice under the Holmes clock on Canal street

kdoglady said...

I read the book several years ago and loved it. Thanks for writing about him - a good reminder to re-read it.

Anonymous said...

I'd stopped reading classics by the time I hit organic chemistry, but my son and I used to have our own summer reading programs. One summer we had a 'Dickens of a Summer' watching Dickens remakes, and videos, read the books, listened to audio books, etc. If there had been a Dickens manga we'd have read it from beginning to end.

We discovered Jeeves and Bertie and the rest and got all the books still in print, that we could find.

Had I heard of this book, it would have been required reading.

At Dr. G's review, I went to read it online and laughed so hard my stomach hurt.

But, it's a kind of sympathetic (or guilty?) laughter. I don't know exactly. My sister has schizophrenia, and other relatives are so honestly observant in some aspect of their illness. Seemingly without the social graces of not saying something that wasn't asked for. I am sorry that the fellow committed suicide.

This is the sort of humor that my husband and I used to indulge as his English is a very different second language from his first, and our language is so full of idioms and inflections based on past and dangling participles that it is difficult to track and simply hilarious where we ended up in some conversations.

On the other hand, what can one say about the English school he attended? " "Hello." "Hello." "How are you?" "I am fine, thank you. How are you?" "I am fine, too. What do you have in your bag?" "Grasshoppers." "Grasshoppers?" "Yes, I have grasshoppers in my bag hopping up and down."

Gizabeth Shyder said...

I absolutely love that book. Read it a few years ago for the first time. Laughed a ton. Got tears.

So many people in this world are stunted because our society does not support mental health care, which I think is as important, if not more so, than physical issues. I'll bet neurology is a great bridge here.

Thanks for the biographical info - fleshed out what little I knew of the author's life (tragic suicide, never getting to realize his success). I have been a loyal follower for years, and will continue as long as you have something to say. Thanks for your efforts, they are much appreciated.

Packer said...

Ok, so I will try and get through it one more time, which is # 5 or 6at last count.

Always struck me as another of "those" books that Englsh Teachers jam down on HS students,
Catcher in the Rye, The Pearl, The Old Man and the Sea. (Daughters description, boring, boring, boring piss over side of boat), and the one that got me kicked out of High School for 3 days: Great Expectations---used word Sucked in my critique.--- How times have changed.

RehabRN said...

One of my husband's favorite books. He even gave it to a friend for a wedding gift (silly fellow--both of them).

girl said...

As another fan of Confederacy of Dunces, I'll second the recommendation of Master & Margarita -- though the thought of there being a significant overlap in their readership hadn't occurred to me before.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorites. Especially the dialogue. He had such an ear. I'm gonna go wrench out my glass in the zink.

Anonymous said...

I love this post about Confederacy of Dunces! It is a great book. I am also delighted to see the reader references to Master and Margarita, which is possibly my favorite book.

Anonymous said...

I ordered this book on Amazon after reading your post. It arrived yesterday. I was hooked from the first paragraph. Nearly stayed up the whole damn night. Thank you!

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