John Kennedy Toole's name is so wedded to this one book and its central character Ignatius J Reilly that you almost expect to find that he was indeed a flatulent curmudgeon, raging against the world. But Toole was a quiet, studious man who was developing a solid track record in academia before he cut his own life short at the age of 32
Toole was born in New Orleans in 1937. His father was a mechanic and a car salesman while his mother, Thelma Ducoing Toole, supplemented the family income by giving music lessons. It is certain that without her forceful nature and her conviction that her son was a genius, A Confederacy of Dunces would never have been published. But for the young John Kennedy Toole, these maternal traits resulted in a heavily protected childhood.
Thelma's instincts may have been alerted by how well her son did at school and it is notable that he completed the only other novel he is known to have written, The Neon Bible, at the age of 16.
After graduating from Tulane University, Toole went on to receive a master's degree in English from Columbia University and quickly progressed to an assistant professorship in English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette).
After a spell of teaching at Hunter College in New York, Toole embarked on a doctorate at Columbia. But in 1961, he had to put his academic life on hold when he was drafted into the U.S. Army where he was given the job of teaching English to Spanish-speaking recruits. As it turned out, he found enough time during his posting to Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico to complete a first draft of the manuscript that would become A Confederacy of Dunces.
On his return to New Orleans, Toole lived with his parents, took up a teaching post at a Roman Catholic women's school known as Dominican College, and spent a lot of his time hanging around the French Quarter.
The manuscript of his novel, which he had continued to revise, was sent to publishers Simon and Schuster in 1963. With some encouragement from John Gottleib at the publishing house, the novel was further refined and revised over a two-year period. Eventually, however, it was rejected for publication.
Toole, rightly as it turned out, considered his book to be a comic masterpiece, and its rejection was a devastating blow to him. By late 1968 he had given up teaching and abandoned the pursuit of a doctorate that he had resumed after his army posting. He began drinking heavily and displaying increasingly irascible behaviour.
In January 1969, Toole disappeared. From evidence pieced together later, it seemed that he had driven to the West Coast and then to Georgia where he visited the home of the novelist and short story writer Flannery O'Connor who had died in 1964. On 26 March 1969, Just outside the town of Biloxi, Mississippi, Toole committed suicide.
Although he left a suicide note, this was quickly destroyed by his mother Thelma. She then went on a campaign that has become a legendary story in publishing history, virtually harassing the author and faculty member at Loyola University, Walker Percy, into reading her son's battered manuscript. The novel finally made it into print in 1980 and one year later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.