I’m sure this has happened to everyone at one time or another–you’re in the airport, or visiting another city, and when you strike up a conversation with a stranger and mention being from New Orleans they immediately say, “Oh, do you know insert name here?” and you not only know them, they live down the street, or your brother dated them, or they are your second cousin once removed, or your mom knows their mom. Then, after exchanging stories, you both have to laugh and agree that “New Orleans is such a small town, isn’t it?”
This is really hitting home with me as I listen to the current nonfiction book on WRBH, Cory McLauchlin’s Butterfly in the Typewriter. This beautifully written biography is a heroic attempt to portray the strange, funny, heartbreaking story of New Orleans’ own John Kennedy Toole, author of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES and winner (posthumously) of the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
Toole’s story is a familiar legend: the intelligent, talented only child of a fiercely doting mother commits suicide when his life’s work, a novel he desperately tried to get published, is repeatedly rejected. Unwilling to let his genius go unrecognized, his mother takes up the cause and through her determination and tenacity, forces Walker Percy to read the manuscript, and he in turn becomes its champion, eventually leading to worldwide acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In our typical small town way, everybody claims to know John Kennedy Toole in some form or another. In this city, “six degrees of separation” is too many; for most people the connection is much closer. For instance, my friend, playwright and poet Jan Villarrubia, was actually enrolled in Thelma Toole’s combination finishing/charm/elocution school for girls in the 1960s, and she distinctly remembers Mrs. Toole’s pale, quiet son interrupting class one day to ask his mother a question. Jan was relieved that he had barged in–they were practicing a group song for the recital, and the girls were trying to learn how to dance and simultaneously belt out “When the red, red robin goes bob, bob bobbin’ along” while thrusting those funeral home “fan” type cardboard pictures on a stick of a garish, grinning robin at the imaginary audience. Exhausted, she was thrilled to get a chance to take a deep breath and chat with the rest of the group. Unfortunately, this meant her one opportunity to observe the genius behind the book was largely wasted.
Another example came when I was looking for quotes from the book to post on our Facebook wall, and just by thumbing through a couple of pages I found a memory from Toole’s classmate Jane Stickney Gwin, who used to be one of the Thursday newspaper readers on WRBH and is also our event coordinator Rachel Stickney’s grandmother. Abraham Kinkopf, our substitute engineer, remembers reading the book while at Harvard, and then wondering if the house he rented on Constantinople Street when he first moved to New Orleans might be the fictional one Toole imagined for Ignatius and his mother.
I’ve got not one, but two stories myself: when I taught at DeLaSalle in 1981, shortly after the book gained national acclaim, Thelma Toole was invited to come to the school and speak. I excitedly told my senior English class her story, and arranged for us to attend the lecture in the auditorium. Imagine my shock and surprise when Mrs. Toole, dressed in a silver lame dress and hat, and accompanied by a muscular hunk of a bodyguard, decided to skip talking about her son and instead chose to screech out an earsplitting “Rock a Bye Your Baby to a Dixie Melody” while banging on the piano with her curled, arthritic fingers. I have to admit, my students were better able to contain their laughter than I was. Also, I am the proud owner of the 1954 Fortier Tarpon yearbook, in which senior John Kennedy Toole was voted “Most Intelligent Boy”. How I acquired this treasure is a bizarre story in itself, and wouldn’t be out of place in A Confederacy of Dunces: a semi-homeless woman I inherited from the previous owners of our house would ride two buses from the west bank to exchange odd, useless, often broken items she’d acquired from trash cans for a “donation”. Over the years, after dutifully purchasing a filthy Mickey Mouse sprinkler, a half-empty fifth of vodka she’d found under a house, and a brown satin evening gown crookedly sewn with lime green thread, I finally hit pay dirt when she arrived at my doorstep with the yearbook. Best three dollar donation I’ve ever made.
Butterfly in the Typewriter airs at 9 am and 9 pm weekdays, and the last segment will feature the Writers’ Forum interview with Cory McLauchlin. Tune in to hear how many degrees of separation YOU are from John Kennedy Toole. In fact, let me know if you’ve got a story, too–I’ll be glad to share yours in another blog post.