B Rant: Happy Birthday John Kennedy Toole & Philip K. Dick

by Brantly Martin

21 December 2014

B = me 
Rant = declaim violently and with little sense; rave

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
-Jonathan Swift; Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting

 

John Kennedy Toole committed suicide by way of garden hose - exhaust pipe - car window in March of 1969 outside Biloxi. He may or may not have visited the home of Flannery O’Connor, his Southern Patron Saint, the day before. (Sounds about right.) A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980 by Louisiana State University Press. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. John Kennedy Toole would have been 77 years old December 17th. 

Confederacy’s path to publication has been well documented. In short: John Kennedy Toole’s mother, Thelma Toole, harassed Walker Percy into reading the book in 1976. Percy—like O’Connor and Toole, a Southerner and a Catholic—finally saw the obvious where the New York lot could not. 

A Confederacy of Dunces was a book that swam upstream, against the flow of the time in which it was written. The early ‘60s saw the awakening of a social conscience that even the great postwar comic novels Catch-22, Cat’s Cradle, and Portnoy’s Complaint were part of. Their charges were delivered pretty squarely from behind the barricades of anti-establishment liberalism. The incipient tentacles of what came to be know in the ‘90s as political correctness were already waving within the embryonic culture of the ‘60s. The South, at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, was America’s designated hell. Southern writers were a suspect species, with a few rare exceptions, including Walker Percy, who eventually (after Toole died) championed the book into print. Confederacy’s unabashed use of Negro dialect by Jones, the floorsweeper, and the fun-poking at the spirit-filled black factory workers must have repulsed New York publishers. There was also the matter of a slew of prancing queens, an evil madam, and a bumbling cop who was a victim, not a villain. And then there was Myrna Minkoff, the Jewish firebrand sexual revolutionary whose sheer silliness was matched only Ignatius’ megalomania. It was as if Toole has set out deliberately to turn the stereotypes on their heads, which is, of course, precisely what he did. The failure of American publishers to see this is unforgivable, and proof, more than anything, of a New York brand of provincialism. I am not sure if John Kennedy Toole’s suicide was a direct result of rejection, but even if this played only a small part, the fools have a lot to answer for. Toole’s job was far from done.” 

-Andrei Codrescu; from his introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of A Confederacy of Dunces (Louisiana State University Press)

That Andrei Codrescu is from Transylvania is on its surface telling. Maybe Toole was a writer that needed, to begin with, a “foreign read”—a la Philip K. Dick in France. But of course this doesn’t hold up (setting aside the impossible task of translating the late 50s, early 60s New Orleans dialect): Confederacy won the Pulitzer and has now sold around two million copies. 

The best example of Southerners circumventing the hermetic New York self-congratulatory-gag-reflex (pre-internet) I can think of are late 80s, early 90s rap labels: No Limit, Cash Money, Rap-a-Lot. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that No Limit and Cash Money are both from New Orleans. But, unlike Master P and Birdman, Toole didn’t want to put out Confederacy himself and sell it out of the trunk of his car. Give Southern Hip-Hop credit for a visionary assessment of the obvious lay-o-the-land and its pragmatic necessities. 

Codrescu writes: “I am not sure if John Kennedy Toole’s suicide was a direct result of rejection, but even if this played only a small part, the fools have a lot to answer for.” Those fools are all dead. New fools have taken their place. But, honestly … those fools are no more foolish than other fools. Where has the convergence of Evolution, Pattern Recognition, Peer Pressure and Consumerism taken You? Question: If a similar book(/situation) were to arise today, and Amazon was the only one to see its merits—publish it, get behind it—where would that fall into the fabricated who’s the bad guy shenanigans? It would have to count for something …

It’s been ubiquitously noted that after Confederacy’s rejection Toole went into a depression marked by paranoia and feelings of persecution. He would have been crazy not to feel paranoid and persecuted. If an in-his-prime Carl Lewis were never even invited to the US qualifiers … 

Of course there is the What would have been? 

Toole killed himself just as Nixon came into office. He would have just turned forty-three when Reagan was inaugurated. Fifty-five when Clinton was inaugurated. Had he retained his satirical powers—(never a certainty)—and decided to turn his eye to Americana at large ... Had he continued to utilize his ear for dialects, sounds, rhythms, he could have assessed another American milieu (when they still existed), a la Pasolini going from Friulian to Roman ... Had he wanted to time travel in The South he could have gone the way of Cormac McCarthy (whom Toole was younger than) in Blood Meridian .... Or, maybe, A Confederacy of Dunces was to be it. I doubt it. 

****

Philip K. Dick was born nine years and one day before John Kennedy Toole. Wether by choice, the subconscious vibrations bouncing around Berkley in the late 40s and early 50s, a Galactic-given constitution, or a pragmatic understanding of the mainstream United State’s relationship to Science Fiction, Dick—in hindsight (and perhaps unbeknownst to himself)—eased into a meditative, Eastern, on-to-the-next approach to his work. One might view Dick’s emotional investment in any single novel, especially the earlier ones, as the exact inverse of Toole’s emotional investment with Confederacy—as one might view Berkley as the inverse of New Orleans. Of course, if Dick had rolled VALIS, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Ubik and A Scanner Darkly into one rejected novel in his twenties …

Not only did Dick have dualities, he had dueling dualities. The one duality that may have allowed for his constant propulsion was his ability to reconcile the search for, and belief in, a God, while self-consciously treading in Solipsist waters. When reading him I often have the feeling that he’s saying: “Yes: this is all likely a hologram. No: that doesn’t preclude a Creator or justify nihilism.” (And sure: that’s what I want to hear.) This feeling is, somehow, both streamlined and dispersed in The Exegesis of Philip K Dick—the 900 page collection/curation (edited down from an alleged 9,000 pages) of his epistolary output attempting to wrap his head around the visionary experience he had in February and March of 1974. The book is dope, check it out

*

But really, Philip K. Dick and John Kennedy Toole are as “apples and oranges” as it gets. Which is why when whatever inevitable iteration of GoogAzon switches their book business to “write on demand” (something that may already be happening) and offers “new and original novels” based on “your current neurosettings”—We see you’ve been reading Whodunits and Multidimensional Sci-Fi and are feeling suicidal … Blink your right eye two times and we’ll instantly write a novel that combines the two genres and lessens your odds of offing yourself—let’s at least hope they retain some budget in their Voodoo and Legal Departments to copyright and bring back to life via DNA a few writers. Perhaps they’ll be able to jam enough of Philip K. Dick’s disposition into the android John Kennedy Toole to avoid another suicide? An android Toole able to withstand the provinciality of Trend. If so, there will be no need for a Turing Test, we’ll know we are not dealing with a human. 

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