John Kennedy Toole

By: Devin McKinney
December 17, 2013


JOHN KENNEDY TOOLE (1937–69) realized both the deepest fear and the highest fantasy of every writer. The fear is that you will go unheralded in your lifetime; that rejection and doubt will overwhelm your confidence; and that you will succumb to the final despair. The fantasy is that your great work, the private prize of your imagination, will find its way to the right authority; that it will be seen as a heartbreaking work of staggering genius; that it will win the highest honor in its division; and that it will survive as an irreducible, unrepeatable creation — a classic.

Eleven years after Toole killed himself, A Confederacy of Dunces — his picaresque post-Southern Gothic novel about Ignatius J. Reilly, a gaseous self-proclaimed genius forced out of his bedroom and onto the New Orleans job market — was rescued by his mother; advocated by a wowed Walker Percy, it finally found publication, acclaim, and a posthumous Pulitzer. A muscular, dirty-humored novel founded in dialects and districts, city noise and human hum, Dunces lacks the knotted ends and rhyming counterplots of Dickens, taking instead the comic-epic form of Gargantua and Catch-22. This form — focused repetition and manic layering, the sense of a world both spreading out from and closing in upon a freakish protagonist at large in a kingdom of vice, violence, and adventure — is the only one possible for this hero. And for the city into which he descends, a city where every person and encounter is as alive as a hothouse or a jukebox, where the marvelous character of a derelict janitor can ask “Where you keep them motherfuckin broom?” and it becomes a question you will never forget.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Penelope Houston, Ford Madox Ford, Milla Jovovich.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).


HiLo Heroes, Literature