Ken & Thelma: The Story of A Confederacy of Dunces
by Joel L. Fletcher
Hemingway, Capote, Mailer, Kesey — the world of 20th century American literati is filled with all manner of colorful characters, authors every bit as wacky, brash and bold as the portraits that fill their novels. Maybe it’s an attempt to compete for fame in the world of movie stars and musicians, compensation for operating in a field that doesn’t lend itself quite so easily to notions of stardom, or perhaps it’s just the sort of off-kilter personality type that is required in order to spend twelve hours a day at a typewriter, shades drawn, phone off the hook.
John Kennedy “Ken” Toole is one of those rare instances in the literary world when the life of the author overshadows his work in the memory of the book-buying public, with seemingly no attempts at such recognition on his part. The story of the publication of Confederacy of Dunces, Toole’s one and only great mark on the artistic landscape is likely better known than the plot of the book itself — even by a good deal of the people who have actually read it.
Having failed to garner sufficient interest on the part of the publishing world, Toole fell into a deep depression, finally taking his life in March of 1969 with a garden hose hooked up to the exhaust of his Chevrolet. Confederacy finally saw the light of day in 1980 thanks to the efforts of Toole’s persistent, if overbearing mother, Thelma, subsequently winning the Pulitzer the following year, making its author the first to receive the coveted award after passing away. Beyond the aforementioned tale of posthumous redemption however, until quite recently, little light has been shed on the life of John Kennedy Toole.
In 2001, Louisiana State University Press, the same house that first published Confederacy, released Rene Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy’s Ignatius Rising, the first lengthy examination of Toole’s life. Though lacking in certain respects, the book became the definitive work on the subject, by default.
Joel L. Fletcher’s Ken & Thelma treads similar ground as Nevils and Hardy’s work, lending a personal touch to the lives of his titular subjects, seeking to, above all, reverse some of the damage that he argues was wrought by the earlier biography, drawing comparisons in his book’s postscript to a “supermarket scandal sheet,” citing the authors’ sloppy prose, the eagerness with which they assert Toole’s perceived homosexuality and the general bastardization of their source material. Fletcher, to his credit, is a good (if not especially scholarly) writer, both in regards to his prose, which is highly readable, and his refusal to jump to uniformed conclusion.
Where the book is lacking, however, is in its focus. Those still searching for the definitive biography of John Kennedy Toole, after the disappointing Ignatius Rising, will not find it in Ken & Thelma, which serves as less of a biography of the Confederacy author, than a personal memoir of Fletcher, who knew both Ken and Thelma personally. Fletcher’s recounting of the lives of mother and son are told through his own eyes, beginning with his meeting Ken in the summer of 1960, through his unlikely friendship with Thelma after her son’s death a decade later.
Thelma, fittingly, commands a good deal more pages than Ken, Fletcher choosing to devote the majority of the book to his interactions with the aging woman in her dual quests to champion her late son’s novel, and to reserve a good deal of the spotlight for her own dramatic flair, which she maintained until her death in 1984. Fletcher’s travels with Thelma have spawned quite a few amusing anecdotes, which the author gleefully recounts, including (most memorably) an interaction with the screenwriter of a proposed made-for-television John Kennedy Toole biopic who insists on inventing bizarre scenarios, but is, much to the author’s relief, ultimately rebuffed. Also included is an appendix made up of letters Ken sent to Fletcher, offering perhaps the strongest insight into the former that the book has to offer.
John Kennedy Toole deserves a good, full biography, though given his short life, and the little that he has left behind, such a work might never come to fruition. For the time being, Ken & Thelma is certainly an entertaining and illuminating, if somewhat lacking insight into the late author’s life. It’s recommended for anyone interested in the subject matter, at least until a more definitive source arises. Though as time marches on, such a text seems less and less likely.
Ken & Themlam: www.kenandthelma.com