In the lively lore of Louisiana literature, John Kennedy Toole is the funniest — and saddest — figure of all. Now, a new book is throwing light on Toole’s legacy, which is complicated to say the least.
Toole’s comic novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” has reduced millions of readers to convulsions of laughter with its tale of a flabby, self-proclaimed genius, Ignatius J. Reilly, who tries in vain to keep a steady job in 1960s New Orleans.
The novel is hilarious, but the story of Toole’s struggle to get it published is not. Toole couldn’t find a commercial publisher that would accept it, and the rejection compounded his mental and emotional problems, leading to his suicide in 1969. After Toole’s death, his headstrong mother succeeded in recruiting internationally renowned Covington novelist Walker Percy to find a publisher for “Dunces.” After LSU Press agreed to bring it out, Toole’s novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. It’s been a literary sensation ever since, read around the world in numerous editions.
So, how does it feel to be the editor who turned a thumbs-down on the chance to publish “Dunces” in the first place?
In his new memoir, “Avid Reader,” the legendary book and magazine editor Robert Gottlieb speaks out.
Along with a stint as editor of The New Yorker, Gottlieb also worked for two major book publishers, Simon and Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf, editing such celebrated authors as Toni Morrison, John Cheever, Doris Lessing, Michael Crichton, Robert Caro and Nora Ephron.
He was offered “A Confederacy of Dunces,” but passed. Writing in “Avid Reader,” Gottlieb calls that development “my most conspicuous failure.”
Gottlieb recalls being “very taken” with Toole’s “energy and originality,” yet thinking that “Dunces” needed work.
Gottlieb suggested revisions to Toole, but “I began to sense that his mind, or psyche, was beginning to fray,” he tells readers.
After Toole made a scene in Gottlieb’s office, the editor decided that they could no longer work together, and plans for Simon and Schuster to publish the book were scrapped.
Had Gottlieb, all those years ago, made the right choice in rejecting the initial version of “Dunces”? He recently revisited the novel to see if his mind had changed.
“I decided to go back to it — and found that my reactions were almost exactly the same as they had been fifty years earlier,” Gottlieb writes. “There was the explosive energy I remembered, the prodigious imagination, the heady humor — and the overload, the strain, the sophomoric take on life. I guess I was both sorry and relieved that my opinion hadn’t changed.”
“A Confederacy of Dunces” is overloaded, but then again, so is New Orleans, which figures as a prominent character in the story. And the story is sophomoric, which only serves to remind many of us why we so enjoyed being sophomores.
Gottlieb is entitled to his opinion. But the world would be a duller place if “A Confederacy of Dunces” hadn’t been published, and we wouldn’t change a word.