Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole (Book Review)

There is something satisfyingly appropriate about a bio that focuses on Pulitzer Prize winning novelist John Kennedy Toole that is actually unable to answer many of the questions about the mysteries in his life. That’s not to say Cory MacLauchlin’s take on the author’s life is not well-researched; it is and as a result is a compelling read. It’s just that Toole wasn’t successful until years after his suicide and his mother, who clearly could be a character in his writings (and very well may have been), closely guarded information about her son, going so far as to burn some his papers after his death. She may have been the only person to have read his suicide note which likely would have answered many of the questions about is life.

Butterfly in the Typewriter, while not the first book to focus on the peculiar life of this New Orleans native, relies more on fact and less on speculation (the author, for example, points out that others have tried to contend Toole was gay and that was likely one of the reasons behind his suicide, but explains that there is just not enough concrete evidence to prove that theory). Sexual preferences aside, Toole’s life was almost as interesting as his work. A brilliant child, he submitted his first piece of fiction (what would later be published as The Neon Bible, his second book) while still in his teens as part of a writing contest. He didn’t win and was so stung by the loss that he stopped writing for years. His post-graduate work took him from New Orleans to New York. A stint in the military, working as a teacher on base in Cuba, recharged his interest in writing and that’s where he started work on Confederacy of Dunces. He would eventually teach at a small school in Lafayette, LA and continue to collect rejection letters from publishers. Distraught, he killed himself only to discover fame after death when his doting mother makes it her mission to get Confederacy published.

While nothing shocking is revealed in this book, Butterfly does a remarkable job of retelling the story of Toole and his mother in a balanced way, cutting out pure speculation, answering some questions while still preserving much of the mystery around Toole.         

Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces By Cory MacLauchlin/Hardcover/352 pages/Da Capo Press/2012

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