On March 26, 1969, John Kennedy Toole used a garden hose to pump exhaust fumes into his car. He wouldn’t live to see the success of his novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces,” which he had tried and failed to get published.
The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, but it also became beloved by audiences who connected with the romp of a picaresque, a dialect-driven New Orleans yarn about a gaseous, garrulous, non-fool-abider, would-be philosopher named Ignatius J. Reilly who lives with his mother.
She prevails upon him to get a job — correctly concluding that quoting Boethius won’t pay any bills — and he gloweringly lowers himself to join the ranks of the employed, working at a hot dog cart where he eats more frankfurters than he peddles, and sometimes incites low-level riots.
It is a rare work of literature that turns a reader into a friend the way this one does, putting its big, clammy paw in your hand, and saying, “we will visit often, you and I.”
So, what to make of its tortured path to publication?
Toole began “Dunces” after serving in the military in Puerto Rico and sent a manuscript to Simon & Schuster, where it landed in the hands of renowned editor Robert Gottlieb. He remarked that he believed Toole talented but that the novel had no point. The two entered a lengthy back-and-forth, with Toole trying to maintain his patience. Ultimately, the author decided that he did not want to completely overhaul the work on the off chance that Gottlieb would publish it.
The book, despite its “wonderfulness,” Gottlieb wrote, “isn’t really about anything. And that’s something no one can do anything about.”
What Gottlieb didn’t predict was the way stories about nothing in particular could speak to us so profoundly, paving the way for pop cultural phenomena like “Diner” and “Seinfeld.”
After Toole’s death, his mother took up the cause of getting her son’s novel to the masses. She tried a handful more publishers over the next five years before buttonholing author Walker Percy, who was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans; to stop this woman from continuing to bother him, he read the book and was knocked into a tizzy over its quality.
Despite putting his weight behind it, it took years before he could persuade a small academic press to put out the book, basically without edits. It was like a printed-out, late stage draft, which nevertheless won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 (and probably would have had no shot without this arresting backstory).
It’s not as if publishing has learned anything from this lesson. Just as no one put out “Dunces” in 1969, it’s hard to imagine a publisher taking a chance on it now. Sometimes it seems as though the more people who might connect with something that is fresh, exciting, singular, both artful and entertaining, the less likely a publisher is to put it out.
What publishers seek are what they call comparables: They like to tell prospective readers that a book is a cross between David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” by way of Ramona Quimby for the modern feminist meets Danielle Steele in a Pirandello mood. Or something. Publishing then blames the lack of interest on Netflix or the evil of Amazon or short attention spans instead of their own derivative products.
Fifty years ago, when Toole took his life, he was only 31, which, for most authors, is just the start of a career. It’s a shame he gave up on finding a publisher so quickly.
It makes you wonder, though, how many masterpieces are stacked on old bureaus, as “Dunces” was, languishing after a rejection letter or two. We’ll probably never know. Instead, we’ll just have to settle for spending another day with Ignatius J. Reilly.
Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, and he writes on many subjects for many venues. His next book is “Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls” (spring 2019).