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Toole, John Kennedy (1936-1969)  
 
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Since its publication in 1980, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces has been celebrated as the quintessential novel of post-World War II New Orleans. It offers as vibrant and telling a portrait of the Crescent City as John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil does of Savannah, or Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City does of San Francisco.

New Orleans--with its mix of French, Spanish, and Afro-Creole cultures, and its history as a pirates' refuge and a pleasure seeker's delight-- is a rewarding subject for a novelist like Toole, who is interested both in exposing social hypocrisy and in celebrating the ability of the socially marginalized not simply to survive, but to live with gusto in the face of the majority's disapproval.

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Toole, however, seems never to have fully accepted his homosexuality, and his writing reflects his discomfort with this marker of his own marginalization. The paradox of Toole's life and career is that the man who created such comically vibrant and emotionally resilient characters as Aunt Mae, Ignatius J. Reilly, Santa Battaglia, and Burma Jones should have committed suicide at only age 32.

Biography

Toole was born on December 17, 1936, the only son of a couple in their late 30s who had resigned themselves to remaining childless. His father was an ineffective but entertaining man who worked as an automobile salesman and mechanic before deafness and failing health forced him into early retirement. His mother, a charmingly flamboyant but deeply narcissistic woman, supplemented the family income by giving music and elocution lessons.

Doting on her son Ken (as John Kennedy was known within the family), Thelma Toole made him the star of the student recitals that she mounted annually. His precocity is evident in the novel, The Neon Bible, which Toole wrote at age 16, but which was only published twenty years after his death.

Having enrolled originally in the engineering program at Tulane University, Toole graduated finally as an English major, writing an honors thesis on sixteenth-century playwright and prose stylist John Lyly.

In 1958, a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship allowed Toole to escape his increasingly overbearing mother for a more independent life in New York City, where he completed a Master's degree in English literature at Columbia University. An Ivy League degree made him afterwards an attractive hire at Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), where he proved a popular teacher and colleague, but where he quickly grew restless with life in a backwater community.

Toole returned to New York City on a doctoral fellowship at Columbia that permitted him simultaneously to teach at Hunter College, which then had a predominantly female enrollment. (He would later skewer in the character of Myrna Minkoff the earnest but, he felt, self-deluded female social activists that filled his classes there.) Frustrated by the degree program at Columbia, he resigned his fellowship in spring 1961 to return to New Orleans, only to be called up by the draft.

Toole served two years at the U. S. Army Training Center at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, where he oversaw a group of young officers teaching English to Spanish-speaking enlistees. His relatively light duties, however, allowed him the time to complete a draft of the novel that would become A Confederacy of Dunces.

Concluding his tour of duty in 1963, Toole returned to New Orleans to teach at Dominican College, a Roman Catholic women's school. After several years his inability to find a publisher for his novel, coupled with the increased frustration of living with and supporting his dependent parents, brought about a breakdown of some kind. Drinking heavily, Toole grew increasingly eccentric in his behavior and dress, and his students began to complain of his rants and increasingly to avoid his once-popular classes.

Toole disappeared on January 20, 1969, following a quarrel with his mother. Receipts found afterwards in his car indicate that he drove to the West coast, then across the country to the home of writer Flannery O'Connor in Midgeville, Georgia, and was on his way back to New Orleans when, on March 26, he stopped on an isolated road outside Biloxi, Mississippi, and connected a hose to his car's exhaust pipe. His death was ruled a suicide by asphyxiation.

Thelma Toole never divulged the contents of her son's suicide note, which she destroyed after reading. Following her husband's death in 1974, however, Mrs. Toole dedicated her energies to finding a publisher for A Confederacy of Dunces, eventually securing an effective champion in novelist Walker Percy. The novel's extraordinary commercial success, upon its publication by Louisiana State University Press in 1980, and its winning the Pulitzer Prize, seemed to surprise everyone but her. She was engaged in a heated legal battle with members of her late husband's family over the publishing rights to Toole's earlier novel, The Neon Bible, when she died in 1984.

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