A young John Kennedy Toole in the Caribbean. Photo courtesy the Toole Papers, Special Collections, Tulane University.
In the spring of 1969 on the side of a country road outside Biloxi, Mississippi a blue Chevy Chevelle sputtered out of gas. A thirty-one-year-old English professor lay lifeless in the driver’s seat. One end of a garden hose had been perched in the rear window, the other end placed in the exhaust pipe.
A few hours later the phone rang in the professor’s home in New Orleans. His mother, who had not heard from him in two months, received the call she had been dreading. Her only child, John Kennedy Toole, had killed himself. She was ashamed and heartbroken, as all her aspirations for him expired into a silent nothingness…
Until she remembered, he had left behind a manuscript.
Toole had written the novel in 1963 during his last few months in the Army in Puerto Rico. Returning to New Orleans, he was convinced it was his masterpiece. He edited it for two years under the direction of Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster. But he eventually gave up as his mind slipped into the snares of mental illness. For years the manuscript lay abandoned in a box atop a cedar armoire. But in 1972 his mother retrieved it and began submitting it for publication. It eventually found a champion in novelist Walker Percy. And eleven years after Toole’s suicide A Confederacy of Dunces was published.
As he had always wished, Toole’s book traveled to book shelves and into the hands of readers all over the world. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. It’s been translated into 22 languages with over 30 editions. All of this came from that document he crafted in Puerto Rico. Yet it is rather remarkable to consider that no one seems to know where the original manuscript is.
I have been researching and writing about Toole for seven years, digging through archives, interviewing his friends and family, trying to decipher Toole’s character, his fears, his desires, his angels and demons. And I have often contemplated that missing manuscript. His mother claimed she discarded all the “Gottlieb edits” in order to showcase her son’s “pure genius.” Still, seeing how Toole altered the creation that he felt defined him would certainly offer insight into his final years. But no one I interviewed seemed to know its whereabouts. The Toole Papers at Tulane University does not have it, nor does the Walker Percy Papers at UNC Chapel Hill. Some of Toole’s friends had heard that Percy’s typist threw the “badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon” away after she retyped it. Walker’s wife, Bunt, didn’t believe that story. She suspected it might be in Walker’s miscellaneous papers that had been boxed-up after his death in 1990. But the family scoured the boxes and found nothing.
I had nearly given up on the question of the original manuscript until a year ago when I interviewed Lynda Martin, the sister of Toole’s best friend in high school. “The manuscript?” she said in a soft southern accent. “Yes, well I have it in my closet here at home.” I nearly dropped the phone as she explained Toole’s mother had given it as a gift to her brother after the novel was published. When her brother passed away in 2008, she acquired it. It had a few penned-in edits, she explained, but not drastic revisions. “I don’t know what to do with it, really” she said. “I considered selling it at auction.” Christie’s estimated its value up to $20,000, if deemed authentic. She hadn’t called Sotheby’s yet. “Please” I begged, “just hold on to it. I’m on my way down.”
In a few weeks I was on a plane, heading to Louisiana, contemplating how I could come up with the money to buy the manuscript from Lynda, or at least convince her to donate it to an archival library. I asked my friend, filmmaker Joe Sanford, to join me on the drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. When we arrived, Lynda, a beautiful blond woman in her early seventies, showed us into her dining room where she had prepared a spread of Toole memorabilia: newspaper articles, a bottle of Dr. Nut, letters from his mother, including the note to Lynda’s brother offering him the manuscript. In the middle of these artifacts she had placed a black binder filled with hundreds of yellowed pages.
I sat down and opened it. The earthy smell of old paper wafted into the air. “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. I ran my fingers over the letters of the title page. I could feel the impressions of the typewriter keys. I almost lept from my seat. I wanted to grab my phone to call my agent and editor in New York to confirm it was real. They were already contemplating the publicity this could gather. “Biographer Finds Long Lost Manuscript” the headlines would read. And my book would fly off the shelves.
But then, as I turned the page, my heart sank. The letters felt smooth. On the lower left corner I saw faint specks of toner, the telltale marks of a photocopier. I flipped through the pages, comparing them with images I had taken from the Toole Papers at Tulane. Toole’s mother had gifted Lynda’s brother with a photocopy of a typescript set by LSU Press shortly before publication. The “edits” in red ink were mere typographical corrections.
I sat dismayed. Looking up from the binder, I found Lynda smiling eagerly. But the smile soon left her face. I explained that she had a document with some history tied to the novel, but not twenty-thousand dollars’ worth. It was not the original manuscript, not even a copy of the original. At first she seemed puzzled, perhaps wondering how these pages could fool her and her family for so many years. $20,000 would have helped her immensely. There was a For Sale sign in front of her house. She was moving to Florida to be closer to her children, she explained. But Lynda had lived long enough to understand the limited value of things. What were these pages after all? Even if it was the original manuscript it would not embody her dear friend who had suffered such a terrible end.
We sat through an awkward silence and then she took out a little index card filled with notes. “You asked me about my memories of Ken” she said smiling. “Yes, would you mind sharing them with me?” We moved into her living room, set up the camera, and she talked about her many recollections of a curious and witty young man with aspirations to become a writer.
She told us about how he had remarkable talent for mimicry, his ability to impersonate a person’s voice, accent, gestures, everything with astounding accuracy. She talked about how he used to explore the many neighborhoods of New Orleans, observing the people and how he used to create characters from those observations, characters like Officer Romigary, Tammy from the Irish Channel, and TJ her Italian boyfriend. She laughed as she remembered how Ken, the name his Louisiana friends called him, used to sit in the bathroom listening to Lynda’s elderly next door neighbor, Irene Reilly, yell out the most offensive and colorful obscenities in all of New Orleans. Indeed, Lynda had witnessed Toole as a teenager cataloging the characters that would later appear in his novel: Officer Mancuso, Santa Battaglia, and Ignatius’s mother, Irene Reilly. And for the first time, I realized Toole had been writing A Confederacy of Dunces in his head for nearly a decade before he set it to paper.
Earlier that morning, I thought I was going to find a rare artifact of literary history, which would help me gain a clearer picture of Toole’s descent towards suicide. But Lynda’s memories were far more profound to me than dissecting how Toole edited his famous novel. Of course, I had to report to my agent and my editor that I had not found the manuscript. But I took heart in what Lynda freely offered me: a vivid portrait of a young aspiring artist, exploring a city filled with unique characters. No documents in the Toole Papers offered such a depiction, a depiction far more valuable than his manuscript.
In writing the biography of Toole, it was always tempting to bemoan lost documents like the suicide note his mother destroyed or the manuscript, especially since his letters are so few and many of his friends and family have passed away. But Lynda reminded me Toole was not a specimen to dissect. As she spoke there was a glimmer in her eyes and an enthusiasm in her voice, as she tried to capture the ineffable quality of his personality that made him so rare — a quality that readers only catch a glimpse of in his novel. He was not only a talented writer, she explained, but a treasured friend, gone too soon. It was my job to convey the complexities of his life. And Lynda’s recollections proved I didn’t need his manuscript to do that.
I still have hopes someone, someday will uncover the manuscript, hidden in a box in an attic or brought to light during an estate sale. After all, those pages hold the first impressions of the creative wave that had been building in Toole for much of his short life. But whether or not it’s found, the creative energy cranked out of his typewriter in Puerto Rico in 1963 transcends the original pages. It endures translation, criticism and shifts in generations of readers. For his novel is a parade of victorious laughter, just like those famous jazz funerals in New Orleans: the solemn dirges leading to the grave are momentary; once the deceased is laid to rest a celebration erupts, flowing into the streets, a carnival of song and dance, blaring triumphantly.