Southern Cultures 10.1 (2004) 97-99
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Ignatius Rising. The Life of John Kennedy Toole. By René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy. Louisiana State University Press, 2001. 240 pp. Cloth $24.95
If Hell indeed awaits the suicide, then you can expect that John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces), Clarence Cason (90° in the Shade), and Wilbur Cash (The Mind of the South) have established a chummy, unairconditioned southern literary circle there. Each of the three writers contributed single and singular works to the southern canon. All three, southern intellectuals from decent families, taught in colleges where they were long remembered as skillful raconteurs and mild-mannered iconoclasts. All three became canonical sons of the South only after being disinherited. They felt keenly the exactions of what Cash called "the savage ideal," that special conformity expected among southerners. Strange to say, in the case of Toole and Cash, you can follow their affinities to the bitter end, since both seem to have come unhinged when abroad from mama South. One could argue that Toole's military stint in Puerto Rico was the kiss of death for his compis mentis, eventually leading to a paranoid belief that "enemies" and conspirators were dogging him. Boys from Brazil notwithstanding, Cash fell under the implausible certainty that he was being pursued by Nazi agents in Mexico City.
A strange consonance, to be sure, but then again, there is a curious way in which some events seem to exert a centripetal force on the very themes of human existence, surfacing and resurfacing around certain people. In some ways, suicide has been a problem for southerners ever since Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot of the Civil War and later his own (to borrow a Percyian turn of phrase) sunset cannon. Indeed, suicide was the strange attractor of Walker Percy's life and it seems altogether fitting that he would have found a publishing outlet for Toole's great knee-slapper.
Until René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy set out to write Ignatius Rising, the public knew little more of Toole's ascendancy to literary fame than the Louisiana State University Press bookcover gloss describing how Percy became [End Page 97] his unlikely champion. Nevils and Hardy faced a lacuna that would intimidate the most intrepid researcher. Only a handful of extant articles and interviews shed much light on Toole's life, perhaps because of the usual suicide taboos attached to his story. There were other challenges, too. The boundaries of the book would have to allow for Toole's posthumous ascendancy. And then there's the question of what to do with his battleship belle of a mother, who loomed larger than life even after her son's death.
Real life characters like Mrs. Toole remind us that fiction is almost redundant in rambling Nawhlins. Ignatius Rising is at its best when it captures something of the piquant flavor of that city's burgoo. Much to its credit, the book thwarts the powerful temptation to turn both JKT and his mother into a study of Life Trumping Art, to make an Ignatius of Toole (or, em, a Toole of Ignatius). A cultural context helps. To southern eyes, early conditioned to pick up on "characters," Ken Toole is indeed an identifiable type. We recognize him as a scrupulously self-contained man, almost dandyish in his public mode, a dryly hilarious curmudgeon in less guarded moments. We've seen him before, and we can nearly imagine the overbearing mother of this over-socialized type: the suffocating, long-suffering southern mother who makes a long-suffering faithful of her son.
Ignatius Rising offers a historical and cultural setting for its subject. Unfortunately, those sketches are the best-developed contexts in the book. Missing altogether is a literary context that would draw meaningful lines between Toole's sui generis book and his one of a kind personality—something that we hear too much about, anecdotally, in the biography. After all, Toole wrote only one book (The Neon Bible, for all practical purposes, doesn't count), so we...