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literature

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Toole, John Kennedy (1936-1969)  
 
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"the more surreptitious forms of living"

Despite his sympathy for the socially marginalized and his animosity towards the powers that enforce conformity, Toole was never comfortable with his own homosexuality and in his writing presents sexual non-conformity in highly ambivalent and conflicted ways.

In The Neon Bible, for example, David is taught in the later grades by Mr. Farley, a man who rolls his hips as he walks, overemphasizes his syllables, and lives with a fellow bachelor, who is the town's music teacher and whom Mr. Farley calls "dear." As the only intellectuals in town, the two men are saved from ostracism by their cultural superiority, and are valorized by Toole for their indifference to the town's values. But there remains something vaguely repellent about them.

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Toole's discomfort with effeminacy, and his inability to present homosexuality except in such terms, is more evident in A Confederacy of Dunces.

Dorian Greene, whose name plays upon the eponymous hero of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, is an effeminate young man in a bottle green velour jacket who runs a vintage clothing store in the French Quarter. After meeting him, Ignatius concludes that if gays were allowed to run the military, "the world will enjoy not war but global orgies conducted with the utmost protocol and the most truly international spirit, for these people do transcend simple national differences. Their minds are on one goal [pleasure]; they are truly united; they think as one."

Ignatius's audacious plan to "Save the World through Degeneracy," however, is undermined by the frivolity of an assembly of French Quarter gay men who would rather listen to Judy Garland and Lena Horne albums than be organized by Ignatius in a protest march. Thus, while Ignatius recognizes in homosexuals' love of sex and fashion a radical alternative to the dominant heterosexuality's militaristic instincts and Cold War animosities, he dismisses it finally as just one of the various "surreptitious forms of living" that plague the French Quarter.

Written soon before the Stonewall Riots, which Toole did not live to witness himself, A Confederacy of Dunces finally presents the notion of organizing homosexuals into a mass movement for equality as self-evidently comic.

Finally, there is the suggestion that Ignatius himself suffers a sexual identity issue. Sexually stunted, Ignatius is fixated emotionally upon his boyhood pet, Rex, and spends afternoons masturbating behind his locked bedroom door. The nearsighted Miss Trixie continually mistakes Ignatius for Gloria, a former employee at Levy Pants, creating a gender confusion that must be sorted out by novel's end. And, frustrated by Ignatius's rebuffing her sexual advances, Myrna repeatedly counsels him to acknowledge his repressed homosexuality.

Ignatius's confused sexuality, however, is part of a larger pattern concerning the ambivalence of all representations of sexuality in the novel. Toole's is a world of sexual carnival in which, finally, no one has any sex.

Santa Battaglia sways her large, fallen breasts in a grotesque dance that repels rather than attracts male companionship. Naive Darlene's partner in her disastrous strip show is a neurotic bird. Mrs. Levy's only emotional and physical attachment is to her vibrating exercise board. Lana displays her statuesque body naked in photographs that are purveyed to schoolchildren, allowing pubescent boys to look but not touch, and avoiding sexual contact with adult males entirely.

Myrna's fervidly delivered gospel of sexual liberation proves to be all talk and brings her no action . . . at least none that satisfies her. Even Aunt Mae, the character in Toole's world who is most open to sexual joy, is frustrated to see one seventy-year-old beau arrested for child molestation and to be left at the novel's end with foul-smelling, fumbling, grossly unsatisfying Clyde.

Apparently Toole could imagine sex but could not allow himself to enjoy it. Like eighteenth-century satirist Jonathan Swift, from whom he took the title of his most famous novel, Toole understood the power of the sexual impulse but was dismayed by the grotesquerie of sexual desire. In the final analysis, it was sexuality of all kinds that repelled Toole, not simply his own homosexuality.

Raymond-Jean Frontain

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    Bibliography
   

Bell, Elizabeth S. "The Clash of World Views in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces." Southern Literary Journal 21.1 (Fall 1988): 15-22.

Klein, Michael. "Narrating the Grotesque: The Rhetoric of Humor in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces." Southern Quarterly 37.3-4 (1999): 283-92.

MacKethan, Lucinda H. "Redeeming Blackness: Urban Allegories of O'Connor, Percy, and Toole." Studies in the Literary Imagination 27.2 (Fall 1994): 29-39.

McNeil, David. "A Confederacy of Dunces as Reverse Satire: TheAmerican Subgenre." Mississippi Quarterly 38.1 (Winter 1984-85): 33-47.

Nevils, Rene Pol, and Deborah George Hardy. Ignatius Rising: The Life of John Kennedy Toole. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.

Ruppersburg, Hugh. "The South in John Kennedy Toole' s A Confederacyof Dunces." Studies in American Humor 5. 3-4 (Summer-Fall 1986): 118-26.

Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

_____. The Neon Bible. New York: Grove Press, 1989.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Frontain, Raymond-Jean  
    Entry Title: Toole, John Kennedy  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated December 20, 2011  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/toole_jk.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  
 

 

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