John Kennedy Toole
By: Devin McKinney | Categories: HiLo Heroes


JOHN KENNEDY TOOLE (1937–69) realized both the deepest fear and the highest fantasy of every writer. The fear is that you will go unheralded in your lifetime; that rejection and doubt will overwhelm your confidence; and that you will succumb to the final despair. The fantasy is that your great work, the private prize of your imagination, will find its way to the right authority; that it will be seen as a heartbreaking work of staggering genius; that it will win the highest honor in its division; and that it will survive as an irreducible, unrepeatable creation — a classic.

Eleven years after Toole killed himself, A Confederacy of Dunces — his picaresque post-Southern Gothic novel about Ignatius J. Reilly, a gaseous self-proclaimed genius forced out of his bedroom and onto the New Orleans job market — was rescued by his mother, advocated by a wowed Walker Percy, it finally found publication, acclaim, and a posthumous Pulitzer. A muscular, dirty-humored novel founded in dialects and districts, city noise and human hum, Dunces lacks the knotted ends and rhyming counterplots of Dickens, taking instead the comic-epic form of Gargantua and Catch-22. This form — focused repetition and manic layering, the sense of a world both spreading out from and closing in upon a freakish protagonist at large in a kingdom of vice, violence, and adventure — is the only one possible for this hero. And for the city into which he descends, a city where every person and encounter is as alive as a hothouse or a jukebox, where the marvelous character of a derelict janitor can ask “Where you keep them motherfuckin broom?” and it becomes a question you will never forget.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Penelope Houston, Ford Madox Ford, Milla Jovovich.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).



Devin McKinney is author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History and most recently, The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda.