Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Occasional Series of Ideas for Papers on John Kennedy Toole, Part 15

1950s Novels of suburban ambition

In Toole's letters to Robert Gottlieb, he mentioned that one of his favorite novels was Bruce Jay Friedman's Stern. Indeed, Toole had decided to send the manuscript of Confederacy to Simon and Schuster because they had published Stern.

Stern is about a Jewish husband from New York who tries to make a go of getting a house in the suburbs. Things go very badly in a darkly comic way. Friedman never hit it big, but he did have a following, and one of his followers, besides Toole, was Woody Allen. Allen then hired Friedman to work on some of his films, and the two have a similar humor about being Jewish in contemporary America.

An earlier novel about a struggle to deal with post-war suburbia was Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. In it, a very upper class WASP WWII veteran navigates the suburban 1950s martini culture and achieves emotional and financial stability. One might argue that Stern is a send up of the sort of narrative represented by Flannel Suit.

One thread of Flannel Suit is to warn the reader against devoting ones life to ambition at the expense of ones emotional and social life. In Wilson's novel, the overworked Mr. Hopkins, the president of the United Broadcasting Corporation, is emotionally estranged from his daughter, who is determined to live a wild, carefree life with her wealth. She is convinced that good times will make her more fulfilled than her workaholic father.

Thesis: Compare Stern, Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and A Confederacy of Dunces. Note Ignatius's relationship to the owner of Levy Pants. Note the contrast of Hopkins's situation with the situation of Gus Levy. .