Book Review – “The Neon Bible” by John Kennedy Toole

Originally published at gnathic.

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A Confederacy of Dunces is a masterpiece by John Kennedy Toole, which masterpiece should have been published before his death. The fact that it wasn’t published is a testament to the tone deafness of the publishers in his day. According to Kenneth Holditch’s introduction to The Neon Bible ((1989, W. Kenneth Holditch, Marion Toole Hosli, Sharon H. Muniz, Althea Toole Farley, and Mary Toole McGuire) Published by Grove Weidenfeld, 1989),  Toole’s second posthumously published work, Toole’s hopes of having Confederacy published were thwarted by Simon and Schuster’s Robert Gotlieb who demanded repeated revisions of the work to the point that Toole became lost in despair and abandoned all hope. In March of 1969 Toole’s family was informed that he had committed suicide. As you might know, the legend goes that his mother Thelma thrust the manuscript of Confederacy into Walker Percy‘s hands one day while he was at Loyola University in New Orleans (where the Toole family lived) teaching a creative writing course and insisted that her son’s work was a masterpiece. Percy was impressed enough by what he read that he convinced Louisiana State University to publish it in 1980. As you also might know, Toole’s posthumously published novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. If you’ve read Confederacy, you probably understand what Walker Percy saw in it. It’s a madcap romp. It’s a tragedy. Toole accomplished a superb combination of two completely opposite yet intertwined elements. If it is true that Gotlieb did not appreciate instantly the perfection in that work, I hope he felt sufficient regret once he saw that it was published posthumously and to much fanfare. Toole deserved to have enjoyed the fruits of his labor. That failure reflects poorly on the publishing industry as a whole because Toole is only one of many writers have been ignored by publishers until their death. It’s ghoulish. I hope things are different now.

I have a bias for Confederacy. Not only have I spent many family holidays and all of my college years in New Orleans, but Confederacy was the first book that my husband and I had in common from the start. So, when I heard about Toole’s other posthumously published book The Neon Bible, written when he was only a teenager, I was intrigued. He wrote it at sixteen years of age, fifteen years before he decided to end his life at 31. According to Holditch, Toole’s mother Thelma recalled that her son had insisted on showing her a large neon sign on advertising the Midcity Baptist Church down on the Airline Highway in New Orleans. The sign was in the shape of an open book with the words “Holy Bible” glowing in neon letters across it. According to his mother, this sign and a visit to relatives in rural Mississippi must have been the inspiration for The Neon Bible.

My impression of this novel was immediately that I could not believe that a teenager wrote it. Yes, the experiences described are from a teenager’s perspective and the language is certainly not complex, but Toole tells the story from a darkness and hindsight that is difficult to obtain, I think, at such a young age as fifteen or sixteen. The novel is set in a time and place that may seem unreal to people who are from urban areas or from places outside the southern United States. But to those of us who have lived in or spent time in the rural South, the setting is powerfully realistic even though it occurs during a time period prior to my birth. This is because the South, especially the rural South, progresses slowly. Even today where I live currently there is a distinct time warp. It isn’t that people are not in touch with modern times, but they cling to beliefs and what they now refer to with the coded nomenclature of “values” that are out of time with the more urbanized areas of the United States. When you are an outsider in the rural South, you know it. People may be kind to you, but you know that you are not their kind. They make that clear to you. So long as you do not cross that line, you may be fine. Toole tells a tale that ends in the wartime 1940s greased with oleomargarine. It’s a time that so many songs and films have romanticized. But he shows you the stomach-churning claustrophobic nature of a small town and its politics steeped in hypocritical religiosity and conformity. The protagonist and his family are definitely the outsiders in this small southern town, both geographically (with their home on the edge of the town) and socially (being impoverished and not being members of the church).

Toole names the protagonist David, but you only learn his name several pages in as he describes what his Aunt Mae calls him. David is a sensitive child who does not seem to know how to handle a harsh world. Other children abuse him. Adults laugh at him and mistreat him. I don’t know if the name choice was significant to Toole. But since the title and setting spotlight the importance of the Christian Bible’s effect on the community, it seems that the “David” of the Holy Bible of Christianity would be an appropriate comparison. And this David of Toole’s story is certainly fighting a Goliath at every turn. As he grows into adolescence his family falls apart. His alcoholic father concocts harebrained schemes that leave the family in financial ruin. His mother’s fragile sanity devolves into a ghastly horror show. David grows up friendless and awkward. Even speech seems to evade him at critical moments throughout the story. He does have some luck, as when a sadistic schoolteacher who locks him into a basically abandoned classroom receives a brutal comeuppance through no device of David’s own. Only his strong-willed Aunt Mae, whose sometimes low sometimes healthy self-esteem intermittently allows her to lavish affection or to hold David at arm’s length, gives David any hope through the story. Even David’s one love interest is a stillbirth. You see David sweeping the floor of the general store and making deliveries, always noticing what’s around him but keeping his head down and failing to interact. He fears breaking any social mores, though it is not evident how he learned what those boundaries are.

At times David reminds me of a Forrest Gump-like character because he is certainly an innocent. There is nothing sinister in his character. But he does not have the luck or assertiveness of a Gump. At other times he seems like the inspiration for elements of Christopher John Francis Boone, the autistic protagonist in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-time. Christopher’s struggle however is explained clearly to the reader going in to the story. His responses to the people he encounters are fully articulated in first person. The reader knows why Christopher responds the way he does. Toole doesn’t give you that in The Neon Bible. If you read both of these novels, perhaps you might see the parallels that I see between these characters. Despite the way Toole leaves the reader to speculate on David’s mental ability, somehow Toole at sixteen with his first novel accomplished what Haddon, at 41 years of age, achieved with The Curious Incident only after years of writing experience and eighteen youth novels in the bag. Toole is able to make the reader identify with a character whose mind functions in a manner so foreign to most people and to find themselves equally angry, amused, sympathetic, and horrified at the world that surrounds the protagonist. At the same time, Toole’s writing makes the reader frustrated with and often amazed at the protagonist himself.

The story Toole threads through The Neon Bible is mostly excruciating.  The pace permits the reader to witness the ample detail the narrator provides. Meanwhile, all along the reader is constantly aware of the painful nature of David’s existence, the intense self-control, the quiet anger, the inability to act. I found that I often wondered what must have happened in Toole’s life that could have led him to tell this particular story when only in his teenage years. We know from Holditch’s introduction that Toole’s father became deaf and was incapacitated, unable to earn a living for some reason not fully articulated. His mother no longer had any willing students for her old-fashioned elocution lessons. Toole grew into a man in his twenties and crossed the line into his thirties while living at home with his parents. He taught at a city college and was pursuing a Ph.D. in English so he may have been able to afford to live on his own, but it appears that his family relied on his income. He was reportedly secretive (e.g., his colleagues didn’t know he was trying to have a novel published) and at the end of his life had been described by a colleague as “paranoid” before he disappeared for weeks only to be discovered post-suicide. But obviously much of this history evolved well after he wrote The Neon Bible. I suppose it is a mistake to speculate. And pointless.

The story holds its own regardless of what we know of the author’s personal history. It contains elements of an Odyssey-like tale with the protagonist’s constant challenges and his dedication to home, his ailing ghost of a mother. It is also an atypical (perhaps in some ways a failed) bildungsroman in that David’s growth seems only incidental. He doesn’t seem to be pushing for growth or seeking anything at all. Yet, his tragic circumstances by the end of the novel force him out into the world. Again, it is not the kind of story you expect from a sixteen-year-old. There is no doubt that Toole was influenced by William Faulkner’s dark southern gothic novels. Nevertheless, as in Confederacy there is humor, albeit dark. His description of the revival tent scene is nothing short of perfection. The revivalist Bobbie Lee Taylor preaches:

Today our nation is having a mortal struggle with the devil. In camps young girls are dancing with sailors and soldiers, and who knows what-all. . . . The president’s own wife takes a part in these activities. When they’re dancing, do you think they’re thinking of Jee-sus? You can bet your life they aren’t. I tried that once. I was dancing with a girl once, and I said to her, ‘Are you thinking of Jee-sus?’ and she pushed me away. She made me realize that I was representing Jee-sus and that Jee-sus has no place on the dance floor. No, sir, that is the playground of the devil.

The scene is complete with screaming women fainting and a chorus of “Rock of Ages” sung by the congregation while the preacher reminds the folks to stuff the donation box. It’s one of few light moments in the story.

Toole must have been a brooding teenager. But Toole is not David. Toole had a brilliant mind where David’s mind shines as brightly as an ungreased cast iron skillet. The reader’s tendency to search for the author in the protagonist fails here and is, by example, proven to be a bad practice. That said, the hopelessness that the reader experiences through David could arguably be reflective of Toole’s own life. The story grows quite bleak and ends with only a faint glimmer. It begins and ends with David on a train. The reader is trapped in the grim circle of David’s history.

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