The Professor and the Doomsday Clock: ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ & Signs of John Kennedy Toole’s Suicide
On the 75th anniversary of the birth of the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole’s biographer Cory MacLauchlin, the writer of Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of “A Confederacy of Dunces,” tells us about the warning signs that led up to the suicide of one of America’s strangest literary geniuses.
An uneasy silence fell over the hot classroom as students stared at Professor Toole drawing feverishly on the blackboard. It was the fall of 1968, the first day of class at Dominican College in uptown New Orleans. The students, awaiting his usual charming smile, could tell something was wrong.
Placing the chalk down, the 30-year-old English professor turned to face the class, revealing the bold white lines of a Doomsday Clock, the iconic quarter face of the Cold War era measuring how close humanity comes to self-destruction. Everyday thereafter, in a somber ritual that no student understood at the time, Toole redrew the hands of the clock a bit closer to midnight. Six months later he was found dead in his car on the side of the road, a garden hose attached to the exhaust pipe.
After the eulogies were said and sympathy cards sent, his legacy would have surely slipped into obscurity. No one expected him to become a celebrated novelist, especially since he was unpublished at the time of his death. But in 1980, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces flew off bookshelves. The fictitious tale of the fat medievalist Ignatius Reilly, plotting social revolution while selling hot dogs in the French Quarter of New Orleans, was hailed as a comic masterpiece and won the Pulitzer Prize.
The immense popularity of the book left readers hungry for more information on the author. They speculated why a man of such promise and talent would end his life so rashly. Some concluded his literary labors must have exhausted his will to live. Or perhaps he crumbled under the weight of cruel rejections from heartless publishers. The dunces must have been in a confederacy against him.
But that clock he drew on the board in 1968 tells a far darker story, one that challenges our notions of what the moments before a suicide look like and how he proceeded with cool measure towards his own demise. It tells the story of a quiet crisis grinding away behind a stalwart face.
In the foreword to A Confederacy of Dunces, Walker Percy notes that a sense of sadness underlies the humor of the novel: “The tragedy of the book is the tragedy of the author—his suicide in 1969.” Henceforth, Toole’s death has been so closely linked to the novel that it’s difficult to imagine him apart from his end. But by all accounts he was a rather blithe spirit: witty, intelligent, a wonderful dancer, and a talented mimic. In fact, when he returned home from the Army in 1964, Confederacy manuscript in hand, he was at his artistic prime, and he had complete confidence in his plan. He would teach at Dominican to pay the bills and edit his manuscript until it was ready for submission. But he also walked into a stifling living situation. He lived in a cramped apartment with two aging parents. His father was near senility, his mother was overbearing, and the household was in financial straits.
At first, Toole made remarkable headway in gaining the attention of Simon & Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb. Over the course of their correspondence, Gottlieb’s praise for the young writer never wavered, but there were some problems with the novel. Seeking a second opinion, Gottlieb shared the manuscript with Candida Donadio, literary agent to Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth. Donadio and Gottlieb agreed that Toole was “wildly funny, often funnier than almost anyone else around, and our kind of funny.” But they also felt the novel lacked significant “meaning.” In June 1964, Gottlieb wrote to Toole, “There must be a point to everything you have in the book, a real point, not just amusingness forced to figure itself out.”
Lines like these reached not only Toole, but also his mother. On occasion, and with her son’s friends in audience, Thelma Toole would read Gottlieb’s letters aloud and then respond in a tirade against “those fools in New York” who knew nothing of art and culture. She defended her son’s genius while he sat quietly on the couch, his shortcomings echoing off the walls of the apartment he paid for. Toole decided he could no longer revise the book, so one day he quietly tucked the manuscript away in a box.
His friends and family noticed a change in his behavior. He became bitter, and his humor turned caustic. To his close confidants he confessed that he suffered from headaches, hallucinations, and a growing sense of paranoia. He believed students were taunting him, driving by his home at all hours of the night and honking a car horn. And he became convinced his novel had been stolen, handed over to novelist George Deaux and published under a different title. It would be easy to say that he went crazy or lost his mind. However, a group of girls from Dominican College did occasionally drive by Toole’s house and playfully honked the horn. And there are some uncanny similarities between Confederacy and Superworm by George Deaux. “Do you think these things I’m seeing aren’t real?” Toole once asked a friend. “I think you need to get help,” the friend replied. Toole nodded and changed the subject. He discussed his issues with calm and deliberate explanation. He could process and calculate. The real problem, his friend Dave Kubach observed, was that Toole “had so much faith in his own mind that no one could convince him of anything different.”
One of the most difficult aspects of suicide to understand is that it usually follows a rather logical process. It often takes planning and careful consideration. Edwin Shneidman, a founder of the nation’s first comprehensive suicide-prevention center, concluded that people contemplating suicide typically suffer “psycheache,” a pain with no clear anatomical origin, but felt nonetheless. The sufferer determines that death is the only way to cease the pain. One might imagine a suicidal person seized by a wave of madness that compels him to do something against the basic instincts of survival, but this is not the case with many suicides. Imagine the resolve of Virginia Woolf filling her coat pockets with stones and walking straight into the River Ouse. In her letter to her husband she concluded, “I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”
Toole arrived at the same conclusion. As the fall semester of 1968 came to an end, and the Doomsday Clock in his classroom at Dominican neared midnight, tension in the Toole home escalated. After the holidays Toole had a fight with his mother and left New Orleans. Nobody knows for sure where he went, but he spent two months on the road, ending his final journey just outside Biloxi, Miss., where he quietly unwound a garden hose and started the ignition. Dressed in his gray suit, he sat in stillness as the noxious fumes billowed into the cabin of his blue Chevy Chevelle.
When Marti Luke, one of his students at Dominican, got news of his death, she immediately thought back to the clock. His final hour was right there on the board, but nobody had recognized it. And like many of his friends and acquaintances, Luke wished she would have done something to help Toole. She was left with an aching desire to turn back time and stop the progression of that clock. That guilt haunted her for decades. Many of Toole’s friends expressed a similar regret—maybe just one more phone call, one more letter. Suicide has a way of casting a long shadow.
And yet, in my conversations with his friends and acquaintances, they repeatedly focused on Toole’s brilliance, wit, and perceptive observations of the human condition. Luke’s resolution over the death of Toole finally came when she played the part of Irene Reilly in the 1993 stage adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces. At the end of each show, a photo of Toole was projected onto a screen above the stage. One night, she noticed how the large black-and-white image of her dear professor illuminated the dark auditorium and shined onto the smiling faces of the audience. It seemed as if time stood still and the tragedy of his end dissolved into the light.