Monthly Archives: January 2012

Is this Toole’s Last Letter to the World?

During my last trip to the Toole Papers at Tulane I had an experience that literally sent chills down my spine.  I spent an hour examining the very rough manuscript of one of Toole’s short stories titled “Disillusionment.”  The structure of the piece is disorienting.  But the title alone demanded my attention. 

In the story, there appears to be two main characters, a middle-aged woman and a young man named Samuel.  Both are outcasts. And the first scene that Samuel appears in the story takes place in the year 1937—the year of Toole’s birth.

To my surprise, submersed in this very rough draft I found one of the most wonderful descriptions of New Orleans Toole ever wrote—far more complex and rich than his descriptions of the city in A Confederacy of Dunces.  And as the story carried on, I noticed clues pointing to something ominous in the design.  Once Samuel found a place of refuge, a second floor apartment in the middle-aged woman’s house in the French Quarter, he ascended the stairwell, entered the room and slit his wrists. What’s even more arresting is how Toole characterizes the suicide as eerily beautiful, a moment of freedom and reconnection with someone to whom Samuel feels he belongs. 

I could hardly contain myself as I read these passages in the Special Collections reading room.  “Oh my god” I kept muttering under my breath, surely attracting suspicious glances from other researchers.  The only question I could not answer was the date.  When did he write it?

Months later, and just before I made final edits to Butterfly, I did a last minute interview with an acquaintance of Toole’s. Charlotte Powell, now the owner of Book Rack in Birmingham, Alabama, had Toole as a guest at several of her parties at her apartment in the French Quarter in 1967.  I never mentioned the story “Disillusionment” to her, but she told me of one night at one of her gatherings they received word that a woman had committed suicide down the street by slitting her wrists in a second floor apartment in the Quarter. 

It seems likely “Disillusionment” is Toole’s contemplation about that event.  But of course he changes the victim to a young man, begins it in the year of his birth and ends it with the young man’s suicide.  And all of this seems to have occured mere months before Toole took his own life.

I must admit, in the absence of his suicide note (which his mother destroyed), I often think about “Disillusionment”, as if behind the fiction lies Toole’s last letter to the world.  And to be honest, it does not strike me like a cry for help. It does not strike me as a frantic moment of distress.  All seems to be at peace–at least in the story.

Of course, to read those lovely passages written by Toole and my assessment of them in the context of his life… you will have to read Butterfly in the Typewriter.

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“Would you like to meet Marilyn Monroe?”

I am not one to place credence in astrology or planets coming into alignment to explain the extraordinary, but I must admit the milestones in the writing of this book over the last few years merged with the milestones of my personal life in uncanny ways.  And now that the release date is in view, I feel at liberty to talk about them.
At first, several literary agencies passed on my idea for the book. I received trite rejections:  “Not for us, sorry.” “We pass…but good luck.” And one of my favorites: “Perhaps you should approach a Southern independent press.”  But on the day my first son was born I got a call from the man I always hoped would become my agent.  As soon as I could I ran to the parking lot of the hospital to return his call and he told me he was interested in taking me on as a client.  Over the next eighteen months our proposal made the rounds and while there was interest,for one reason or another a deal did not come in.
And then on the day my wife and I got the wonderful news that we were going to have a second child, I got a call from my agent telling me he had a verbal agreement from a publisher.  There were no details yet, but my book was going to be published!   I was so thrilled that I popped open a bottle of champagne.  I raised a glass to my son-in-the-making and a glass to Toole.  I think I drank the whole bottle that afternoon on the deck.
Weeks passed by with no details.  I understood–budgets had to be made, numbers crunched, dates established.  Meanwhile, I plugged along with research and planned a much-needed research trip to New Orleans.  While I had faith the contract would come in, I couldn’t help but feel unnerved as I left behind my pregnant wife and one year old son for a full week to chase down interviews in New Orleans. “What if this thing falls through?” I thought.
But two hours after my plane landed in the Crescent City my agent called.  We had the contract and it was official.  The details were in.  And that night I was invited to a party with Joel Fletcher and Joe Sanford at a house on Bourbon Street.  It was surreal to be introduced as the biographer of John Kennedy Toole at a party on Bourbon.   
Once I was back home, we had some back and forth about details in the contract, words needed clarification, an added phrase here and there. There was no cause for concern–just a little delay. The holiday season came and went.  And in March–a few days before the birth of our second son–  I signed the book deal and received my first advance.
And I couldn’t help but smile when I got news of the official release date: the day before my second son’s first birthday.  
All of these milestones repeatedly lining up became rather amusing to my family.  It became a running joke with us.  How many kids must I have if I wanted to make a career out of writing books? And it just made sense that I would dedicate the book to my wife and two sons, since our lives seemed to be in some kind of rhythm with it. 
But there are several milestones that I never joked about as I was writing–ones that gave me pause.  John Kennedy Toole was twenty-five when he started writing A Confederacy of Dunces.  He was a young, confident man who had much to say and nothing to lose. I was twenty-five when I started writing his biography.  Toole was thirty-one when he committed suicide, his manuscript for his novel tucked away in a box.  I will be thirty-one when Butterfly in the Typewriter is released.  And it was 1980 when his novel was finally published.  1980 was the year of my birth.  
I can’t say that I believe this means something profound –other than it makes me feel connected to this story in a way that surpasses an intellectual intrigue.   Of course, I am not the only one who feels that way.  I have read countless letters from aspiring writers who deemed Toole a kind of patron saint of the dejected author, a martyr who became canonized–and thereby justified.  Still, in my own way, I like to believe my connection with him is special–probably because I have spent so much time contemplating his life.
I always felt that I would have enjoyed Toole’s company.  And I consider myself lucky to have spent many years getting to know a man who in the end I really like, but unfortunately never met in this life. 
Admittedly, I reserve some hope that we will meet in the next life.  Of course, if that does happen, I will have to look him square in the eye and wait to see what he says about my book. 
My highest hope is that he simply offers me his famous half-smile–and then, leaning forward so no one else can hear, he asks grinning, “Hey, you wanna meet Marilyn Monroe?”

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