If you’ve spent any time in New Orleans, you can appreciate the challenge of putting the city’s joie de vivre into words. However, as a New Orleans native, John Kennedy Toole was steeped in the traditions and flavor of his hometown and, therefore, uniquely qualified to write about it. His novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, is considered one of the best ever written about New Orleans.
As Cory MacLauchlin writes in his new biography, Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces (Da Capo Press, 2012) ”Toole selected, merged, refined, and wove characters together with all the absurdities that form the human condition. And there on the once blank sheet of paper in his private room in Puerto Rico emerged the city he had known all his life, his New Orleans.”
MacLauchlin’s task is comparably challenging. He’s got an academic struggling to be a writer, a writer struggling to get published, and a man struggling to survive… and that’s just John Kennedy Toole! But MacLauchlin pulls it off. Deftly avoiding the problems that sometimes plague literary biography, Butterfly in the Typewriter is tightly written and populated with such memorable characters that it’s of interest even if one is unfamiliar with Toole’s work.
Perhaps most impressive is the author’s unwillingness to dabble in speculation, a reticence that is increasingly rare and, as a biographer, sometimes taxing to maintain. As MacLauchlin writes: “In my pursuit to understand Toole, I neither aimed to diagnose him, nor cast him in the mold of tortured artist [...] I have sought to understand Toole on his own terms [...] to compose a biographical narrative in which Toole would recognize himself if he were alive to read it.”