One of the many stories told about the comic genius Peter Cook concerns a Cambridge reunion. He sees a contemporary . What are you doing? I am writing a novel. To which Cook replies, Neither am I.
At the beginning of this century with my journalism beginning to dry up I used to hit my drinking club at opening time 5.30. This was made sociable by there always being another. A much younger man,an Oxford graduate, well married but having already lost his career in radio.. What was he up to beside being a house husband? Writing a novel. Neither was I.
He later got divorced, left London and retrained as an osteopath. And what was left of my journalism finally dried up completely.
All this came to mind as I am reading A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Wacky, funny, off the wall, deep,genius perhaps. In his life time(37-69) he couldn’t get the book published. He had it all, fine supporting family, good enough to teach at university, a wacky military life, a stand up comic, heavy drinker, given to paranoia and depression. Oh yes we are talking the creative type. Close to his mum and since you ask, yes, he was gay. Think of the better known writer from New Orleans Tennessee Williams. The heat, the pain ,the talent ,the booze, the end Anyway this great book was turned down time and again. He was not like other men, he was better. He lost his job. Fell out with his mama. He drove off. And gassed himself in his car aged 31.
What brings this story into such dramatic relief is that his mother never gave up on her darling boy. She pestered and pestered and eventually the novelist Walker Percy, read and believed. AS he says of the book’s main character Ignatius Rielly “without progenitor in any literature I know of –slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas all rolled in one-who is in violent revolt against the modern age.”
Donleavy, Heller, Roth, Wallace they are all there in the book. Brilliant but of course like many creatives Toole was bipolar walking on a tightrope. Like others he fell. Published authors have twice as much chance of committing suicide as the rest of the population. God knows what the figure is for those who dont get published. “Luckily” though I enjoy writing I have no passion,no need, no addiction. My line on novels has always been, I would rather read a good one than write a bad one.
But the punch line of this story is that Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Eleven years after its author had taken the hose out of his car trunk. He was never going to do nine to five.