Friday, October 27, 2017

THE LAST DAYS OF BLACKBEARD THE PIRATE – Kevin P. Duffus

Those of my beloved readers who might be growing a tad concerned at the embarrassing delay of my promised novel, the one with the aspect of Blackbeard's mysterious treasure in it, which suffered a setback last year with revelations by Scottish historian Angus Konstam that only in fiction did pirates bury their ill-gotten jewels, doubloons, and pieces of eight, should know the sea’s most notorious blackguard has tossed another belaying pin into the works. Arrrrrrrrrrr, as neither Edward “Black” Beard nor any other of history’s several thousand lessor known seagoing brigands ever said—despite what the movies would have us believe.


There. In the spirit of piratehood I’ve already stolen the most dazzling diamond in Kevin Duffus’s chest of treasures hidden in plain sight as The Last Days of Blackbeard the Pirate. Ordinarily I wouldn’t divulge spoilers even at the risk of being forced to walk the plank (another likely piracy fallacy, although I, shiver me timbers, would not be averse to doling such punishment to anyone daring to give away the ending of any of my novels). But Last Days is not a novel, although reading like one it fully affirms a paraphrase of the adage that journey trumps destination, especially if you’ve seen the movie and know the “surprise” at the end. Yes, Kevin Duffus, historian/filmmaker/author, has proven to me and should to anyone willing to accept narrative written in the non-academic-preferred (sniff) active voice that the 18th century nautical rogue known by less rigorous historians unanimously as Edward Thatch or Teach of Bristol, England, was in fact the son of James Beard, a prominent Bath, North Carolina landowner.

Edward Beard did grow a black beard. That much by all accounts is true. But the infamous nickname, attributed to a victim’s account that ended up in a newspaper, probably was coincidental. Beard himself adopted the
“Black” to his name in memory of his pirating mentor, Sam “Black” Bellamy, who died in a shipwreck, Duffus argues. And the Beards were from Scotland, where another nationally known rogue of that period, Rob Roy MacGregor, was called “Red” by many. Once Duffus reveals this conclusion, his narrative subsequently switches from the “Blackbeard” sobriquet to “Black Beard.”

Duffus bases his arguments on exhaustive, meticulous research, including trips to England, where he walked the streets on which local lore has Edward “Thatch” growing up, and Philadelphia, where Duffus suggests Beard’s father sent him to be schooled and from which records have him shipping out as a commercial seaman before his pirating days began. The name “Thatch,” which doesn’t appear in any Bristol records, according to both Duffus and Konstam, most likely was shortened from “Thatcher,” commonly found in Philadelphia, and adopted as a seagoing pseudonym by young Beard as was customary of apprentice sailors. And, of course, due to dialects and the lack of any standard dictionary in the early 1700s, “Thatch” easily became the “Teach” that appeared as the pirate’s “surname” in documents and popular accounts.

Duffus establishes solid credibility with diligent examination of every scrap of possible evidence, by him and three genealogists--John Oden, Allen Norris and Jane Bailey. The four, working independently but cooperatively, scoured property deeds, wills, and lawsuit records, tracking down Beard, his relatives, in-laws, and neighbors. Tedious as this work must have been, Duffus transforms the search for truth in a narrative that sparkles with suspense and accumulated revelations. “Reverently, I carried my containers of documents across the room, weaving among dozens of desks occupied by other researchers engrossed in their own mysteries,” he says of a moment in the National Archives of Great Britain, containing historical records that include “William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book, the Magna Carta, the treaty ending the Hundred Years War, and Shakespeare’s last will and testament.
Duffus
 “Back at my table and following a familiar procedure, I gently removed the documents from their boxes, unfastened the cloth bindings and began my descent into the mist and mysteries of the past.” What he finds astounds him: “Suddenly, all of the annoying, ambient noises of the reading room of the archives fell silent as I sat in my chair, stunned, incredulous— and amused. I had been there.”

He was reading a handwritten report by Royal Navy Capt. Ellis Brand who commanded the February 1719 expedition from Virginia to North Carolina’s Outer Banks that concluded with the death of Edward “Black” Beard:

I have been a sailor myself for nearly 40 years and have sailed the Atlantic waters off North Carolina’s Outer Banks and throughout the tidewater region and tributaries of the Pamlico Sound--[...] In fact, for many years I docked my boat at Bath, not far from Blackbeard’s favorite landing, and made the trip between Bath and Ocracoke more times than I can remember in weather fair and foul. Had I been Lt. Maynard, I would not have spent an uncomfortable night in the ocean just off Ocracoke’s beach. I would have sought a safer, more placid and less exposed anchorage inside of the inlet. There were plenty of places to anchor without having to crowd the pirate and his friends.

Which is, in fact, exactly what Maynard did. History has been in error. Maynard dropped anchor on the soundside of the inlet. And what’s more, he didn’t even directly arrive there by way of the ocean. I could hardly believe what I was reading.

A more egregious error—laughable in retrospect—involves what became of the fifteen men arrested for piracy after Beard and most of his crew were killed. Historians have claimed the prisoners were taken to Williamsburg, where two were pardoned and thirteen hanged from gibbets spaced along what is now Jamestown Road. Their dangling bodies were left to rot. Since reading Angus Konstam’s description of this mass execution I wondered every time I drove that road where in fact the gruesome gibbets might have been. Turns out they were never in Williamsburg. Only six pirates were put to death, all of them hanged “at the mouth of the Hampton River,” Duffus writes.
Sister Susie?

One of the men historians long held had been  hanged, Edward Salter, returned to Bath and became one of the colony’s wealthiest landowners, helping to found what is today the state’s oldest standing church. Duffus hints that maybe Salter kick-started his fortune with some pirated gold Beard may have stashed secretly in Bath.

Unbeknownst to Duffus until he got lucky in a Pitt County, N.C. deed book, it was Salter’s granddaughter who led him on his odyssey of several decades to discovering what is almost indisputably the true identity of “Blackbeard the Pirate.”

As a young man living in eastern North Carolina, he’d been intrigued by a legend the infamous pirate had visited a sister named Susie in the area. Alone, Duffus went to the wooded, overgrown place where “Sister Susie” was believed to be buried and where the legend also claimed pirate treasure was buried. Duffus found plenty of evidence that treasure hunters had visited the site. He tripped in one of their holes and, peering in, found himself staring into the eye sockets of a human skull. He also found the gravestone of a Susanna White, but according to the inscription engraved on the stone, she was born 37 years after the notorious pirate’s death. Wondering who Susanna White was and how she might have been connected to “Blackbeard” led him down the long and winding road to Edward Salter and to Edward “Black” Beard and Beard’s real sister, Susannah Beard Franck.

So what now, for the “Blackbeard” element of my novel-in-progress? No pieces of eight, no Thatch, no Teach..but wait--there is something, by jiggedy! Something even better than doubloons on a dead man’s chest. Yes, indeedy. Umm, you don’t think I’m gonna let that parrot out of the bag so easily, do you? Yo ho ho. You can read The Last Days of Blackbeard, and if you study it closely enough you just might find the map. Remember, though, I got there first. Maybe I moved the X!




[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]


Thursday, October 19, 2017

MAIGRET: DOUBLE FEATURE – Georges Simenon


For as long as I can remember I've harbored a vague (very vague) interest in reading something by Georges Simenon, in particular the Maigret series. But until last week I never went so far as to actually read a word by him. I don't know why I put it off so long. I'm neither Francophile nor -phobe. I have pleasant memories from long ago of two stays in Paris for a couple of weeks each time, and I shared a room with an extended family of cockroaches one night in Marseille. Maybe some psychological clock’s been ticking all the while and the alarm finally went off. Or it might have been the excellent review I read recently of the very first Maigret novel—PIETR THE LATVIAN—by my blogging buddy Sergio Angelini, which persuaded me to read the novel. I did, and was hooked. In fact I swallowed the hook.


Maigret is the most engaging fictional police officer I’ve encountered. I had a similar response to Arnaldur Indridason's Inspector Erlendur in the two novels of that series I’ve read. Both characters have what seemed to me an unusual capacity for empathy—with victims and suspects alike—and a penchant for introspection. Dogged in their pursuit of solutions to mysterious deaths, both lean heavily on intuition, sometimes at the expense of forensic evidence, and they’re not afraid to stand up to superiors at risk to their careers. I confess to being more enthusiastic about Maigret, most likely because it taps deeper into my psyche, reaching that nearly buried personal French connection. I’ve never been to Iceland.

I’ve billed this report a twofer but have decided to avoid the embarrassment of trying to compete with Sergio’s review, which I highly recommend. You can reach it here.

Instead, I did a little online sleuthing to see what I might find about Georges Simenon and his creation: Detective Chief Inspector Jules Amédée François Maigret of the Paris Police Judiciaire. I also scanned the Maigret novels listed on Amazon, and found, to my delight the title MAIGRET’S FIRST CASE, which I devoured after promptly downloading it onto my Kindle app. On the heels of reading Simenon’s debut Maigret, I imagined the fun he must have had some thirty episodes later taking us back to meet his star character as a rookie police officer, and it fascinated me to see the embryo of a full-blown, nearing-middle-aged Maigret in the wet-behind-the-ears youth of twenty-six.


Most of the traits we see in the wiser, more experienced Maigret are evident in the younger version. "Maigret, more than any other detective with a ream of adventures under his belt, rarely solves crimes; instead, he solves people,” writes Scott Bradfield in a NYT Sunday Book Review piece titled TheCase of Georges Simenon. "Maigret rarely has to search hard for clues, Bradfield continues, “they are constantly occurring all around him, like the casual altercations of people in crowds. In fact, Maigret’s chief talent doesn’t seem to be genius, or method, or physical strength, or even hard work — rather, he’s simply interested in people, and why they behave the way they do…

"Simenon slowly abandons all the traditional, manipulative nonsense of mystery and crime fiction, and allows his middle-class, relatively conventional hero to roam freely above and beyond the dull, self-constrained lives of murderers (and their victims) that inevitably become, for him, all too human, all too believable and no more “guilty” of anything than just about everybody else."

And yet, there’s something substantive—heavy, even—about Maigret, a sort of ambulatory Nero Wolfe whose authority suffers no compromise from the candor of his sharing doubts and introspection with us. Suspending disbelief, as I always try to do when reading well-written fiction, I never doubted in either novel the plausibility of Maigret’s intuition as he pondered the culpability or innocence of people he was investigating. As to the plotting, with only two Maigrets under my belt I am hardly qualified to take issue with Bradfield’s opinion that the early novels are “far from the best” in the series. He pronounced Pietr the Latvian a “crude initial effort” (a tad harsh, in my opinion), and dissed the next several as “rather gimmicky Agatha Christie-style whodunits.” I shall reserve judgment until I’ve read the next Maigret on my to-read list, the series’ second, The Late Monsieur Gallet.

Simenon’s skill with Maigret comes through to me even with my scant familiarity with the series. Two scenes contrasting from the first novel with the first case (30th or 31st novel) emphasize the distance in time on the character’s development. This from Pietr, in which Maigret is confronting the socialite wife of a multi-millionaire who’s gone missing:


‘Well now! Is that how you conduct a manhunt?’ she said to Maigret. ‘I’ve just been told you’re a policeman … My husband might have been killed … What are you waiting for?’

The look that then fell upon her was Maigret through and through! Completely calm! Completely unruffled! It was as if he’d just noticed the buzzing of a bee. As if what he had before him was something quite ordinary.

She was not accustomed to being looked at in that way. She bit her lip, blushed crimson beneath her make-up and stamped her heel with impatience.

He was still staring at her.

Because he was pushing her to the limit, or perhaps because she didn’t know what else to do, Mrs Mortimer-Levingston threw a fit.

And this from the young Maigret, who is following up a complaint from a musician who claims he heard a woman cry for help from the second floor of a mansion, and then heard a gunshot after it appeared someone had pulled her away from the window:

In those days, Maigret was almost as thin as the flautist, so skinny that as they walked up the road they looked like two raw-boned adolescents...

The situation was actually rather alarming. As he raised his hand to ring the bell, Maigret felt his chest tighten, and he wondered which regulation he could invoke. He had no warrant. Besides, it was the middle of the night. Could he really claim a crime had been committed when his only evidence was the flautist’s swollen nose?

Like the musician, he had to ring three times, but he did not have to kick the door. At length a voice called out:

What is it?’

Police!’ he said in a slightly tremulous voice.


Of the many minor characters in this novel, one stands out so prominently as to compete with Maigret for memorability. He’s a petty criminal known as Dédé, an audacious hedonist with charm and seemingly unrestrained appetites. Made me wonder if Simenon used him in other novels, perhaps even making him a bestselling novelist. From Scott Bradfield’s little retrospective in The New York Times, one could get the impression Dédé and his creator would have gotten along quite infamously.



[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]




Thursday, October 12, 2017

CANNACORN – Con Chapman

CannaCorn is not hysterical realism. That's for the record, for anyone who might fear that my using the words realistic and hysterical to describe CannaCorn means it’s a satiric novel of too many pages. It is a satiric novel, of course, but it’s about baseball, and no one on Earth could write a thousand-page baseball satire—not Don DeLillo, not Thomas Pynchon nor David Foster Wallace (were he still alive), not even Con Chapman, who, however, has written the most hysterically funny realistic satire about baseball that’s ever been written. (I can’t prove that, but I dare anyone to come up with a more hysterically funny one. Pretty much the rest of this review will be examples from CannaCorn to intimidate anyone eyeing this challenge.)
Example 1: Right at the get-go the teammates of a Spanish-only-speaking player, who’s just arrived at the park, set him up by telling him they’re wearing back armbands because the manager’s wife’s decorator’s poodle has died. They give him a shirt with an armband to wear when he meets the manager, who speaks no Spanish. Translations go awry, and the manager ends up believing the player’s wife has died, and orders black armbands for the entire team for the next game.
Example 2: The players get even with manager, Russell “Rusty” Rhodes (his older brother got dibs on the nickname “Dusty”), when he hits the high point in a team pep talk with “There is no ‘I’ in TEAM!”
“‘Excuse me, coach?’ Riley ‘Chip’ Hilton, Jr. spoke.
“‘Yeah?’ Rhodes replied.
“‘There’s a ME in TEAM. ME is first person like I.
“‘I guess you’re right, Chip.’
“‘How ’bout MEAT?’ Michael ‘Treasury’ Bonds spoke up. ‘There’s a MEAT in TEAM.’
“‘There’s MATE, too,’ Hilton added. ‘EAT MEAT,’ Bonds continued with emphasis. ‘I ATE some MEAT. They’re all in there, mon,’ Bonds said in a lilting accent that betrayed his Jamaican parentage.
“‘Okay, enough of that,’ Rhodes said.
“‘How ’bout MAT’ and MET?’ Bonds continued.
“‘And TAM,’ Hilton suggested in a sort of logorrheal trance.
“‘What does that mean?’ Bonds asked.
It’s a Scottish hat—a tam o’shanter.’
“‘Can’t count that. It’s a foreign word.’
“‘Treaszh, this isn’t Scrabble.’
“‘TAME maybe--’ TAM doesn’t count.’
“‘Guys, let’s focus,’ Rhodes said as he held his hands up, palms down, in an effort to quell the linguistic uprising that had broken out.
“‘AT,’ Delfayo Newbill said absent-mindedly as he stroked a bat with a steel rod. ‘You got an AT in there.’
The room fell quiet as heads turned towards the sound of metal rolling up and down the wooden shaft.”
Newbill’s ending this potentially infinite jest was incidental to his mania of stroking bats with the steel rod because it “Gits the magnetism out of ‘em,” something he said his barber told him was a result of all the “big buildings” in Worcester. “Big buildings attract magnetism into the city ’cause they metal,” Newbill contended, expanding the explanation into further absurdity until Rhodes, knowing better than to keep pushing, changes the subject. Rhodes puts up with the testy Newbill because, sent down from the St. Louis Cardinals to its farm team due to his unmanageable temper, he’s the Worcester Quahogs’ home-run star. This is not saying much, though, as the team itself is struggling to maintain its mediocre standing among its minor league rivals.
The star of CannaCorn (we’ll get to what the title means in a bit) is my least favorite character. Wait. Before we get there, here’s another Delfayo Newbill weirdity I can’t think of any better place than here to put it—a description of his African-American handshakes bar none: “He had several. One, a simple ‘high-five’; a second, a forearm-to-elbow slam; a third, a cross-wise slap with an up-down one-potato-two potato to finish it off; and rounding out the collection, a fist-on-fist knuckle bump. This was Delfayo’s way of insulating himself from contamination by the white world; he would consistently and capriciously change the form of congratulations he would accept from his Caucasian teammates.” Now, back to my least favorite character, the novel’s star.
Con Chapman
Schuler Billings “Trey” Templeton III, the team’s executive vice president. This fey, overeducated son of the foul-mouthed, hardnosed Quahogs owner wants only to write the great American baseball novel and bed Nae Ann Embree, who is dating the team’s first baseman. This set-up gives us Shakespeareanesque romantic high jinks that also include Trey’s betrothed and the ubiquitous Delfayo Newbill. It’s complicated, trust me, and I came dangerously close to hysteria in the reading.
My favorite cringeworthy Trey disaster is his getting caught by the local newspaper’s sportswriter plagiarizing in a proposed feature for the paper a passage from The Great Gatsby. The reporter demands $25,000 to keep from exposing him, and it’s...dare I say, hysterical.
Then there’s the chaotic rhubarb scene in which a fight breaks out during a game in which the brother of one of the Quahogs plays for the other team. Of course Delfayo Newbill plays a starring role:
In the liberal style of British boxing before the adoption of the Queensbury Rules, Newbill threw his arm around Jones’ neck and put him in a headlock. Players on both benches threw themselves into the fray, first among them Seanté Jones, who reached the engaged combatants first and threw a punch that hit Newbill flush on the right cheek and knocked him to the ground.
“‘What the hell you doin’, man?’ Newbill said, as he tasted warm and salty liquid in his mouth.
“‘He’s my brother you ponk,’ Seanté yelled, as he threw himself on top of the fallen base runner.
There followed a confused battle in which friends of the Jones brothers attacked Newbill, teammates of Newbill attacked Seanté Jones, a fellow Quahog, and a Balkan atmosphere of internecine violence prevailed. As the parties were separated by blood lines and major league affiliations, Chip Hilton scored from third amidst the mayhem, and the Quahogs led one to nothing.”
I’d love to see Jonathan Franzen try to write a scene like that. No I wouldn’t—if Franzen wrote it, I wouldn’t read it.
Awright, it’s CannaCorn time. What in hell does the title mean? Franzen? Nah, he don’ know from peas. Here’s Trey explaining the meaning to his baseball-bored fiancé:
“‘Can of corn’ is a baseball term that refers to an easy pop fly, so-called because back in the days when baseball first became popular, before the dawn of self-service super markets, stock boys in grocery stores would roam the aisles and pick out customers’ selections. Employees would poke canned goods off the higher shelves with long poles, and an experienced stock boy could catch a falling can of corn with ease, hence the figure of speech, ‘can of corn,’ meaning a pop fly that appears difficult to catch but is actually an easy play for the fielder.”
Thanks, Trey, you jackass, I didn’t know that.


[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]



Saturday, October 7, 2017

THE MAYOR'S SON – Susan Pare

Once I'd learned the title of Susan Pare's latest novel I knew I had no choice. Even were there a choice I knew nothing could keep me—wild horses, world war, the Zombie Apocalypse—absolutely nothing could keep me from reading The Mayor's Son. You see, not only was the book's title something I'd heard aimed derisively at me throughout my adolescence, the book's author and I attended the same high school. Susan was three years ahead of me. I did not know her, but I recall her younger sister dated my cousin, and younger brother knew my sister. I remember Susan's older brother as the local newspaper's photographer, capturing dynamic images on his huge Graflex camera at our school's athletic events. He appears in the same role in the novel as “Kirk Peary.”

Columbus, Wisconsin, was (and remains) a small town. What I had to worry about, knowing Susan writes crime novels (one of which I'd reviewed a year or so ago), was how much did she know about me and might she be getting even for my Amazon review of A Bad Week in Hollister (I recalled liking the book, but was afraid to check back in case my words weren’t as flattering as some authors—all, in fact—prefer to see for their efforts.) I had to worry if Susan made me the villain or the victim in The Mayor’s Son.
I’m relieved to report I don’t think she had me in mind while creating any of the many characters in this nail-biting tale of prostitution and murder in our little hometown, albeit set in a year my father was in fact Columbus’s mayor. True, Pete Drollstrom, son of the novel’s mayor, is a grade-A jackass, and true, your reviewer surely had his jackass moments back then and later (even now!), yet...but I intend not to give anything away here. No spoilers, if I can help it. But here’s one of my favorite scenes, one of several fantasies Police Chief August Austin (our real chief back then was Ariel Austin) shares with us as he regards his least favorite officer:
Chief Austin stared back at Pete, stepped back a few feet, slowly pulled his gun out of his holster, and aimed it at Pete.
Pete’s face turned white, fear written in his eyes. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked Austin. “You know better than to aim a loaded gun at someone.”
I do know that,” Austin said softly. “Unless, of course, you intend to use it.”
“You’re bluffing. There’s no way you’re gonna shoot me. Now, put that gun away or I’ll have my dad fire your ass,” Pete stared up at Austin. “This isn’t funny, Augie.”
That’s Chief Austin to you. And, you’re right. It isn’t funny,” Austin said, as he pulled the trigger.
Even when it became apparent the eponymous mayor’s son’s jackassery was most likely not a reflection on me, I was unable to completely relax my vigil as familiar name after familiar name appeared on the myriad other characters—good, bad, and neutral. Mine—whew—was not among them, but a couple had been good friends. These were just the last names, and yet even seeing those in print opened windows on the past, letting in nostalgic breezes that carried scents, faces, and voices from long ago. On a whim I dug through unpacked boxes of my books until I found our 1957 high school yearbook. They were in there, the seniors, most of the names in The Mayor’s Son. They were Susan’s classmates.
Susan Pare
Mixed with the profound relief at not finding anyone in the novel who I thought resembled me in the slightest (even the good guys), and being transported in my mind back to the misty, tender days growing up in my birthplace, was the pleasure of reading a good story. The Mayor’s Son is a well-paced, suspenseful drama, but, at least to me, believable only as fiction. I spent many hours fishing and clamming with Glenn Lange along River Road in the Crawfish River, where one of Susan’s corpses is found. I spent a summer home from college packing cartons at Stokely Van-Camp’s canning factory, behind which police conduct the search for clues to one of the novel’s killers. Bought many a bag of popcorn at Hasey’s Wagon, under which another fictional corpse turns up...
I’m sighing now. Time carries us continually farther from such days with each passing second. Columbus seems idyllic in my memories, and it was, despite the horror you imagined, Susan. But thanks.
 – the real mayor’s son.


Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES – John Kennedy Toole

I continually laughed aloud, mentally gasping, my third trip through A Confederacy of Dunces, as I recall doing the first two times. But this time was a little different. I felt a kind of sadness riding along with the mirth and astonishment. It wasn’t just that I knew the story behind the Pulitzer-winning novel, that it didn’t get published until 1980, more than a decade after its author, John Kennedy Toole, had killed himself. I knew this the first two times, and probably felt a little sad about it then, too. Maybe the difference this time came from a closer reading of Walker Percy’s foreword, noting his mention of a sadness that might have come as well “from the tragedy at the heart of Ignatius’s great gaseous rages and lunatic adventures...”
Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist of this incredible novel, so famous today there’s a bronze statue of him in front of the Canal Street department store in New Orleans where the novel’s hilarious opening scene takes place. We meet Reilly and watch him provoke a situation that quickly gets out of hand. Impossible not to appreciate Toole’s masterful comic orchestration. Yet, the sadness Percy mentions seemed to hover all the while, almost hidden in the background. Ordinarily I can’t help identifying with protagonists in novels. I’d matured a tad since my last two reads of Dunces, which perhaps explains why now I saw another Reilly beneath the flagrantly brilliant buffoon of quixotic farce. A deeply pitiable Reilly. And some of my sadness I’m sure came from empathy with the fictional character because I share much if not most of the disenchantment with modernity that drives his rage.
At the same time I identify with central fictional characters I find myself wondering how closely they might serve as their creators’ alter egos. In Dunces it was easy to imagine Toole giggling and guffawing as he drew what Walker Percy said were perfect caricatures of archetype New Orleans denizens. And I imagined also some of Toole’s glee came from knowing his writing was spot-on, great even, and that the validation of literary success was awaiting him around the next corner. And my heart hurt for him, knowing as I enjoyed the fruit of his creativity and imagining his exuberance during the creation, knowing what lay ahead instead: the torturous frustration of waiting...waiting, until finally the inescapable crushing reality of failure.
John Kennedy Toole
Of the various ironies in this heartbreaking backstory, perhaps the crowning one is that the woman who obviously inspired a main supporting character, Toole’s manic mother, played a key role in getting Dunces published. Thelma Toole hounded Walker Percy until he read the manuscript, finding it “an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good,” he wrote. “I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, shake my head in wonderment. Better let the reader make the discovery on his own.”
As for this reader, the gaping, grinning, laughing aloud and...well, I’ve never shaken my head in wonderment, but I shall say straight out I executed the other three tributes at the very get-go:
A green hunting cap squeezed the top of the fleshy balloon of a head. The green earflaps, full of large ears and uncut hair and the fine bristles that grew in the ears themselves, stuck out on either side like turn signals indicating two directions at once. Full, pursed lips protruded beneath the bushy black moustache and, at their corners, sank into little folds filled with disapproval and potato chip crumbs. In the shadow under the green visor of the cap Ignatius J. Reilly’s supercilious blue and yellow eyes looked down upon the other people waiting under the clock at the D. H. Holmes department store, studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency. Possession of anything new or expensive only reflected a person’s lack of theology and geometry; it could even cast doubts upon one’s soul.

Read that, and you know you’re off on one helluva weird and riotous romp—that is, unless you have trouble digging into a novel that doesn’t have a plot. But wait! Actually there are many plots, little ones, each character has his or her own little plot, and they all seem to be going nowhere, but, as Thelma Toole tells us in the hour-long film biop of the amazing Dunces saga—which you can load by clicking here--”they all come together in the end!”

The supporting cast includes, of course, Irene Reilly, the long-suffering, insufferable mother; Patrolman Angelo Mancuso, a puny, sickly cop who spends most of the novel in various undercover disguises trying to “catch a character”; Myrna Minkoff, Reilly’s revolutionary, abusive girlfriend; and Jones, a young black “in whom,” wrote Percy, “Toole has achieved the near-impossible, a superb comic character of immense wit and resourcefulness without the least trace of Rastus minstrelsy.”
Here’s Jones as a costumed doorman supposed to lure patrons into the bar whose owner he hates and whose business he’s trying to sabotage:
Whoa! Come in, see Miss Harla O’Horror dancin with her pet. Guarantee one hunner percent real plantation dancin. Ever mother-fuckin drink got a guarantee knockout drop. Whoa! Everybody guarantee to catch them some clap off they glass. Hey! Nobody never see nothin like Miss Harla O’Horror Old South pet dancin. Opening night tonight, maybe this be your one and only chance to catch this act. Ooo-wee.”
Maybe that’s the scene that made Percy shake his head in wonderment. It is possible I even shook mine a little, although I would hate to admit that here.
For years I held the misconception Toole committed suicide because no agent or editor would read his manuscript, which for some reason I assumed was written in pencil on cheap Big Chief lined tablets and smeared with stains from food and unthinkable other things. I’d been confusing Toole with his Ignatius Reilly. The real story is told in Joel Fletcher’s excellent account, Ken & Thelma, which explores the Dunces phenomenon before, during and after.
Robert Gottleib
Toole wrote—on a typewriter--most of the novel while serving as an Army draftee in Puerto Rico teaching English to recruits. He sent the finished manuscript straight to the prestige publishing house Simon & Schuster. There the eminent editor Robert Gottleib read it and wrote to Toole that he loved it, but that it would need some editing. Toole complied, but the manuscript came back with more suggestions for edits. This went on for two years. Letters between the two in Fletcher’s book show how grinding the process was, but how steadfast Gottleib remained in defending the book. My impression now is that it simply failed to excite the marketing wing at Simon & Schuster. Too weird, maybe, too radical. Scenes like Toole’s erotic episodes in bed fantasizing about his dead dog Rex (maybe that’s what got Percy shaking his head—hell, alright, I’ll concede I might have shaken mine a tad at that point.)
Meanwhile, the drinking habit Toole tool developed in Puerto Rico grew heavy in New Orleans. The last time a girlfriend from his college days saw him, not long before his suicide, he was deeply depressed, she told Fletcher.
It is a great pity that John Kennedy Toole is not alive and well and writing,” Percy wrote. “But he is not, and there is nothing we can do about it but make sure that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy is at least made available to a world of readers.”



[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]