Idol Chatter

Les Phillabaum, the former editorial director at Louisiana State University Press, who took a chance to publish the unknown, deceased author John Kennedy Toole’s novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces” died on January 14th. With Phillabaum’s passing, the players who pulled off one of the most remarkable and inspiring escapades in the annals of publishing are now gone. Let us take a moment to tell the tale once again.

In 1976, Thelma Toole, whose son had committed suicide seven years earlier, presented herself to the eminent southern writer, author of “The Moviegoer,” Walker Percy. In her hand she held a smeared carbon copy of her son’s novel, already rejected by eight publishers. Percy expected little but, as he famously told the story in his foreword, he found himself reading “with a prickle of in­terest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.”
After approaching his own publisher without success, Percy prevailed upon Phillabaum to release the book in 1980. Phillabaum’s willingness was, by most of his authors’ testimony, entirely characteristic of this courageous and affirmative man.
The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, and perhaps more ironically, surpass in many ways the work of its benefactor. To quote from University of Tennessee professor Thomas Fredrick Haddox in his 2005 book “Fears and Fascinations: Representing Catholicism in the American South”: “No less than Percy’s work, Toole’s novel reflects the transformations of southern and Catholic life wrought by the civil rights movement and Vatican II. But with the benefits of hindsight, Toole’s account of these transformations … appears more prophetic.”
Toole’s delightfully eccentric main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, is a hypereducated, overweight defender of the faith in a red hunting cap who lives in New Orleans, who deploys his Catholicism not as a spiritual shield against the world as a weapon in a culture war. “Even more than [Percy’s] ‘The Moviegoer,'” writes Haddox, “‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ reveals a world in which Catholicism has ceased to function as anything but a marker of lifestyle.” It’s a critique that Catholics debate today as much as ever.
In 2003, Les Phillabaum was made an honorary member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.