A True Genius: John Kennedy Toole


Every list of Funniest Books Ever includes A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Most reviews echo the praise of The New Republic: “It will make you laugh out loud till your belly aches and your eyes water.” Yet since the novel’s 1980 publication, all attempts by Hollywood to film this comic masterpiece have failed. Zach Galifianakis is the latest star rumored to play Dunces protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly, New Orleans’s strange, cranky favorite son. Director Steven Soderbergh, who walked away from his own Dunces movie, isn’t optimistic. “I think it’s cursed,” he has said. “That project has got bad mojo on it.”

The novel A Confederacy of Dunces began its life in 1963, on a borrowed typewriter in an Army barracks while Sergeant John Kennedy Toole was stationed in Puerto Rico. Returning home to New Orleans, Toole gave the manuscript to his mother, Thelma, who proclaimed, “It’s a masterpiece, son.” Toole sent the manuscript to only one publisher, Simon & Schuster, where it caught the eye of Jean Ann Jollett, assistant to editor Robert Gottlieb (who would go on to edit The New Yorker). Jollett wrote to Toole, “I laughed, chortled, collapsed my way through Confederacy,” before passing along the manuscript to her boss. Toole wasn’t prepared for Gottlieb’s blunt editorial comments, however—especially ones like “It isn’t really about anything.” Toole and Gottlieb exchanged notes on the book for two years but, as Cory MacLauchlin writes in his absorbing Toole biography, Butterfly in the Typewriter, the author was “at a loss as to how to edit his novel without destroying it.” In 1965, defeated and despondent, Toole put his manuscript into a box that rested on a cedar armoire. The box sat unopened for eight years.

Confederacy_of_Dunces_medAfter packing away his life’s work, Toole slipped into depression and paranoia. The breaking point came after a brutal argument with his mother. Toole quit his teaching job, emptied his savings account and disappeared for 64 days. His body was found in his car on a lonely dirt road outside Biloxi, Mississippi, on March 26, 1969. He was only 31. Thelma Toole, who destroyed her son’s suicide note, was determined to share his genius with the world. She submitted the Dunces manuscript to dozens of publishers and was later quoted as saying that with each rejection she “died a little.” In 1976 she convinced Walker Percy, National Book Award–winning author of The Moviegoer, to champion her son’s novel, and in 1980 LSU Press wrote to Thelma, “We are very surprised that the book has not long since been published, but we are indeed pleased that we will be the ones able to do it.” Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. In his introduction to Dunces, Walker Percy praised “Ignatius Reilly, without progenitor in any literature I know of—slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” And Thelma Toole became a media darling; in every interview and on every television appearance, she praised her genius son.

A movie version of Dunces has never moved beyond the development stage. John Belushi, the first actor under consideration to play the portly antihero Ignatius, died of a drug overdose days before he was to meet with the project’s producers. Comedians John Candy and Chris Farley both suffered untimely deaths (1994 and 1997, respectively) before their own productions could begin. Fellow heavyweights John Goodman, Josh Mostel and Jack Black were also ready to wear the green hunting cap Ignatius favors, but then Fortune’s wheel spun downward again. Director John Waters, who’d wanted to film Dunces with drag queen Divine as the star, has wondered, “How can a movie ever live up to that book?” A 2004 version starring Will Ferrell probably came closest to being filmed, but it also fell apart. Ferrell called the Dunces adaptation “the movie everyone in Hollywood wants to make but no one wants to finance.” Then, of course, there was Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, which made filming in New Orleans impossible. As Ignatius himself might wail about his most fragile body part, Oh, my pyloric valve!

But perhaps Hollywood is trying to make the wrong Dunces movie. Pictures of Toole (see above) show a man who looks very much like Jack Black; rather than filming what seems to be an unfilmable novel, isn’t the more compelling story one about the author’s own life, death and rebirth through art?

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia