John Kennedy Toole was born on December 17, 1937, and he grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. Toole's father worked as an automobile salesman and a mechanic before deafness and failing health forced him into retirement. His mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, was a dominating woman who, convinced that her son was a genius, sheltered him and rarely let him play with other children.
Toole enrolled at Tulane University as an engineer, but he graduated with an undergraduate degree in English. After graduating, he worked briefly in a men's clothing factory. He later received a master's degree at Columbia University. He spent time teaching, first as an assistant professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and then in New York as a teacher at Hunter College. He spent some time pursuing a doctorate at Columbia, but he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1961, before he was able to finish.
Toole served in the Army for two years at Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico, teaching English to Spanish-speaking recruits. The relatively light duties of this job left him plenty of free time, and he was able to complete a draft of the novel that would become A Confederacy of Dunces.
Following his army service, Toole returned to New Orleans and lived with his parents. He began to teach at Dominican College, a Roman Catholic women's school. Toole's spent his time in New Orleans hanging around in the French Quarter with musicians, and on at least one occasion, he sold tamales from a cart.
After completing his manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces, he sent a copy to Simon and Schuster for it to be published. He considered it a masterpiece. Though the publisher initially was excited about the novel, Simon and Schuster ultimately rejected the book. His failure to get his novel published, together with his increasing frustration living with and supporting his parents, brought on a breakdown. Toole deteriorated rapidly. He began drinking heavily and taking medication for headaches. He became increasingly eccentric in his behavior and dress, and soon students began complaining of his rants.
Following a quarrel with his mother, Toole disappeared on January 20, 1969. It was later determined that he had driven to the West Coast and then across the country to the home of author Flannery O'Connor. On March 26, 1969, on his way back home to New Orleans, John Kennedy Toole committed suicide. He placed one end of a garden hose into his exhaust pipe and the other into the window of the car, where he was sitting. Toole left a suicide note, but his mother destroyed it after his death, and there are conflicting reports about its contents.
Following Toole's suicide, his mother sought out author Walker Percy and insisted that he read A Confederacy of Dunces. After finally relenting and reading the manuscript, Percy fell in love with the book. It was published in 1980. In 1981, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Toole had written one other novel, The Neon Bible, when he was sixteen years old. But because he had viewed the work as too juvenile, he had not sought its publication. It was finally published in 1989.