In so much of American culture (with the possible exception of PAX network programming), the archetype of the Overbearing Mother too often gets a bum rap. When not being played for laughs, she is reviled for her selfish intentions, resented for trying too hard, and generally blamed for ruining the lives of her children.
While artists from Ernest Hemingway to Eminem have successfully mined the torments of their mothers for dramatic material, the particular tragedy of A Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole was that by taking his own life 12 years before the publication of his novel, he denied himself any such catharsis.
In his memoir, Ken & Thelma: The Story of A Confederacy of Dunces, Joel L. Fletcher reflects on the friendship he shared with both Toole (known as Ken to his friends) and later with his mother, Thelma Toole -- Overbearer Extraordinaire. Fletcher became Thelma's Guy Friday just as she was becoming a martyr of almost mythic proportions in the literary world, accompanying her to television interviews, Uptown teas and afternoon excursions to the home of Walker Percy, whom she famously pestered until he agreed to help get Confederacy published. Having stood by as Thelma soaked in the glory of the book's posthumous success -- all the while exclaiming that it was 'all sawdust to her now' -- Fletcher attempts to redeem, or at least explain, this woman who was 'as much a tragic figure as [Ken] was.'
Certainly A Confederacy of Dunces would never have been published without Thelma's dogged persistence; it has also been suggested that without her toxic influence, her son may have lived to write another, better book. As Fletcher concludes, 'She was the force that shaped him, and ultimately, a force that helped destroy him.' Just like his fictional creation Ignatius Reilly, Toole returned to New Orleans after completing graduate school in New York City and lived at home with his mother. But the woman who had once served as his safety net became the biggest threat to his survival. Barely three paragraphs into Confederacy we meet Ignatius Reilly's harping martyr of a mother as she enters into his filthy bedroom; he tells her she is stepping on his worldview: 'Isn't it enough that you have destroyed my digestion without destroying the fruits of my brain also?'
Who wouldn't want to know more about the relationship that inspired those bitter sentiments? But Ken & Thelma is not a tell-all -- it's really more of a tell-some. While Fletcher seems genuinely interested in illuminating the relationship between author and mother, he offers few intimate revelations about their private life, occasionally extrapolating insights from seemingly insignificant details. But Fletcher is such a careful writer that this restraint seems to come from deliberate discretion, not from a lack of more substantial information.
Fletcher does offer one particularly salient detail about the nature of Ken's relationship with Thelma: Bobby Byrne, Ken's friend and teaching colleague and the model for Ignatius Reilly, once told an interviewer that Ken was always surprised to hear that his mother was always bragging about him. 'My mother spends all her time telling me how stupid I am,' Ken told Byrne. While Thelma was careful to place blame for Ken's suicide on his depression following rejection of his novel, Fletcher posits the more plausible theory that Ken was inclined to take rejection badly in general, thanks in large part to his mother's tough love.
The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, known as the ice queen of literary critics, once cautioned readers against sentimentalizing the circumstances of the novel's publication. 'A great novel might well have been made out of these raw materials, had Toole lived and a good editor gotten ahold of him. But we'll never know.' In fact, a good editor had gotten hold of him. As evidenced by the fascinating letters excerpted in Ken & Thelma, Toole made a genuine intellectual connection -- if not a guaranteed inroad into the New York publishing world -- with Robert Gottlieb, then the editor at Simon & Schuster. Their increasingly warm exchanges comprise some of the most compelling passages of the book:
'I've been trying to think straight, since speaking with you on the telephone, but confusion and depression have immobilized my mind,' Ken wrote Gottlieb after Gottlieb told him the book was unfit for publication in its current state. 'I have to come out of this, though, or I'll never do anything. I feel as if I gave birth to [this book] is what I know, what I've seen and experienced. I can't throw these people away.'
Gottlieb responded kindly: '... If you know you have to continue with Ignatius, that is of course what you should do. I will read, reread, edit, perhaps publish, generally cope, until you are fed up with me. Cheer up. Work. We are overcoming. Best, Bob Gottlieb.' What makes gossip so seductive is the opportunity for betrayal. While Ken & Thelma reads like the gossip of a well-spoken lady who holds you in her white-gloved grip, the reader who, like me, expected something a little more tawdry will be disappointed; Fletcher, to his credit, never stoops so low.