I just finished Butterfly in the Typewriter by Cory MacLauchlin, and figured out the title. It’s not interesting enough to explain. Joel Fletcher’s memoir of Toole and his mother, whom Fletcher attended after Toole’s death, was thoughtful, and insightful. Both authors, Joel Fletcher and Cory MacLauchlin, have little patience with the books and articles attempting to queer Toole. I’m sympathetic to their arguments because there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Toole was other than the way he presented himself–an astute observer of people and human behavior. Toole excelled at being conventional, which doesn’t preclude homosexuality, but his sexuality doesn’t interest me. If he were a so-called “latent homosexual,” so what? The commonplace view of sexuality as a way of being in the world in which one belongs to either one extreme of sexual being or another is too extreme to fit the more boring reality that sexuality is malleable. Toole wanted to be a famous writer, and there were living, out Southern writers at the time–Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote–who contradicted the idea that homosexuality would interfere with fame. I’m well acquainted with the insights of queer theory, and won’t find them useful in this analysis.
No, it’s the carnivalesque, and the medieval world described by Mikhail Bakhtin, in which any kind of transgressive sex was the stuff of guffaws at the expense of the Church and other higher ups, that gives me a way to understand New Orleans that makes sense. A person has to understand how a person such as John Kennedy Toole could exist in order to get a way into the complicated world of Ignatius J. Reilly. How could it be possible for someone to exist who loves New Orleans more than any person or place or anything else? Toole’s ambition to fulfill his genius took a backseat to his dedication to represent, even in fiction, the real New Orleans. Most New Orleanians think that all representations of New Orleans, in whatever form, film or fiction, documentary or drama, parlor readings or plays, are just wrong–except for this book. Toole got it right. Not because he was a New Orleanian. I don’t know if people in New Orleans think only a New Orleanian can get it right, but I doubt it. Toole got it right because he was a careful observer, with a keen ear, and innate good taste. Why was he driven to represent New Orleans, to give it to the world, mocking pretentions, and flouting many of the conventions of novel writing that caused so much difficulty between Toole and Gottlieb, his editor at Simon and Schuster?
The chapters explaining Toole descent into mental illness and his eventual suicide are devoid of the delicious details that fill the rest of the biography. Toole quit his job teaching at Dominican College mid-year, and took off in his car. No one he knew ever saw him again, except perhaps in death more than 60 days later. Receipts found in his car suggest he’d driven west first, and visited San Simeon, and then drove east to see the house where Flannery O’Connor had lived in Georgia. He connected a garden hose to the car’s tailpipe in a pine woods near Biloxi.
Ignatius Rising is the next book on the pile, but given the way Fletcher and MacLauchlin write about it, and have given away its central project of planting a queer interpretation of Toole, I may go on to Managing Ignatius by Jerry Strahan first. I don’t know what that’s about.