Taking the mystery out of a book I love
I love it when I come into possession of a book about which I know nothing - never heard of it or its author - and find I have stumbled onto a gem. One time I picked up a copy of Captain Maximus in a used book store in Melbourne, Florida and a whole new world was opened to me, the world of the increidble writer Barry Hannah. But the way I came into possession of my first copy of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is a story almost as strange as the one attendant to its authorship and subsequent publication.
If you haven't read Confederacy, you should be aware that the whole experience will be colored by reading Walker Percy's foreword. It is a story in itself, the story of how one woman's determination got a book that many deemed unpublishable into print. It went on to win a Pulitzer. The foreward adds to the air of mystery one might take away from reading such hilarity. What muse prompted this strange creativity? Sadly, we tell ourselves, we will never know, because the author will never explain himself.
I'm not exactly sure when this occurred. Most likely it was the late 80's or early 90s. I was practicing law in Manhattan and had developed a client base, mostly criminals, that would rival the cast of characters in Confederacy. One lesbian couple that I had known for years had actually been introduced to me through a civil matter, but got themselves into a jam in another state where they ran a Ponzi scheme that allegedly bilked innocent investors out of a few million dollars. One of them took the weight in order to spare her partner and ended up doing two years in the federal pen.
One day I got a call that the one who had pleaded guilty had done her time and had been released. They were inviting me out to dinner to celebrate the occasion. I thought it a bit odd, feeling that this was taking my relationship with them to a new level. But, I figured they had alienated all their friends by their larcenous behavior and a criminal lawyer would be the only one who wouldn't be put off by what they had done. They were right about that last part. I suggested a restaurant a few blocks from my office.
I got to the restaurant a half-hour early in order to fortify myself for an evening of not knowing what to expect. I was standing at the bar working on my second martini when I felt someone's hands begin to massage my shoulders. In the mirror behind the bar I saw the beautiful, statuesque Mary Ann. I spun around on the bar stool and she gave me a hug and a peck on the cheek. Behind her was her partner Maureen, short and stout, and dressed like a preppy in grey slacks and a blue blazer. Mary Ann was wearing a low-cut dress that clung to her shapely figure.
Dinner was truly a joyous occasion. The food was good and the liquor flowed freely. I had thought that they might have set this whole thing up either to con me or get free legal advice. To my recollection, none of that happened. But then again, the whole evening had turned into one big blur. All I could remember the next day was that I'd had a good time. I could tell by my hangover. Fortunately, I didn't have any cases on in court in the morning.
About mid-morning, my secretary came into my office with a package that a messenger had delivered. It was from Mary Ann. I opened the large envelope with a great deal of curiosity. In it were a book and a map of Wyoming. The book was A Confederacy of Dunces. I wracked my brain trying to figure out what this delivery was all about. Slowly it came back.
The map was simply confirmation that Wyoming does in deed exist. In a drunken debate, I had taken the position that there was no such place, as I had never met anyone who had ever been there - or something like that. The book took a bit more digging. Flipping through the pages, I determined that it was a novel set in New Orleans. I had recently been to New Orleans. And then I remembered that my two friends told me they had also been there, looking for a business opportunity. They had visited the Dr. Nut soda pop factory, which was up for sale, and had been given this book because their product was prominently mentioned in it. Later they would split up and Mary Ann would marry a straight guy and have a kid. Maureen the jailbird, distraught over the breakup, would go on to be accused of embezzling funds from a woman who had turned down her amorous advances.
A few days later, after my head had sufficiently cleared, I undertook to read the book, which, incidentally, neither of them had done. I only did this because I had enjoyed New Orleans as a tourist and was interested to learn more about the Crescent City. And that is how I was introduced to the raucous world of Ignatius J. Reilly and the short, sad life of John Kennedy Toole. Only later did I learn of the book's cult following.
A few weeks ago, a new biography of Toole came out: Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces by Cory MacLauchlin (Da Capo Press, 2012). As I started it, I decided it would be best if I were to reread Confederacy, which I did with great joy. I am about halfway into the biography and reading with great interest. Before I started reading, I wondered, do I really want to delve into the psyche of the mysteriously dark figure that penned this strangely appealing book? So far the mystery has only deepened. There are interesting facts and lots of conjecture as the book approaches the ultimate tragedy. Maybe something will yet be unearthed; maybe it will be left up to the reader to make his or her own inferences. But whatever happens, I will still have my own story of how I came to read the book.