The Neon Bible
Although John Kennedy Toole’s first published novel was hailed as a comic masterpiece, the author’s own life, like that of the protagonist in The Neon Bible, was more tragic than comic. After attempting for six years to have his novel A Confederacy of Dunces accepted for publication, Toole gave up hope and committed suicide. It took ten more years of crusading by his mother and the intervention of the novelist Walker Percy before the book finally appeared, in 1980, becoming a surprise best-seller and winning the Pulitzer Prize. Had he lived, its author would then have been in his mid-forties, with much of his literary career before him. The brilliance of that career is suggested by a second posthumous novel, The Neon Bible, written when Toole was only sixteen but published after the death of his mother and after a lengthy legal battle summarized in the preface.
Although A Confederacy of Dunces was a Rabelaisian comedy set in New Orleans and The Neon Bible is a tragedy set in the piney-wood South, probably inspired by a visit Toole made to rural Mississippi, thematically the two novels have much in common. In both, an individual is isolated because he is different from his society. The protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces, the philosophical Ignatius Reilly, is an adult with a fully formed character and an enviable independence of mind; therefore, it is society which, unable to mold him, must deal with him in all of his brilliant eccentricity. In contrast, the protagonist and narrator of The Neon Bible is a boy who does not reject society but is rejected by it. David’s earliest memories are happy because then, when his father was working steadily, the family was accepted by the community. They lived in a decent house, they visited friends and gave Christmas presents, and, most important, they were able to pledge to the church and therefore could be a part of it. Unlike Ignatius, David is not independent by nature, nor does he react defiantly to attack; indeed, one of the most miserable memories of his childhood was the day he spent with a group of schoolmates, who decided to bully him. When they beat him, his response was to cower and to vomit.
The character in The Neon Bible who is most like Ignatius is Mae Gebler, David’s great-aunt, a sixty-year- old singer down on her luck, who comes to live with David’s parents and becomes the emotional mainstay of the family, primarily because, like Ignatius, she insists on being herself, no matter what the community thinks. Even though she eventually realizes that by wearing big-city, night-club clothes and by slinking about like her current movie favorite, she has turned most of the town against her, Mae is only superficially regretful. During a party at the defense plant where she works, she sings and dances, bringing unaccustomed joy to the women whose men are off at war, and as a result she is praised in the newspaper and engaged to sing with a band at the movie house. The fact that the local puritans attack her only proves that she has done something to dispel the gloom, and Mae does not change.
It is difficult to judge whether in The Neon Bible Toole intends to indict a specific Bible Belt social structure or human nature in general as the source of David’s tragedy. At any rate, David learns to expect betrayal and cruelty from most of those in whom he puts his trust. His father deals with problems irrationally. When David has been beaten by his playmate and put outdoors by his mother, Frank treats David as if he were the culprit; when Sarah begs Frank to return the seeds and tools which he has bought with their food money, Frank knocks her down. It is clear, however, that even Frank’s brutality is a sign of his weakness. Although she is gentle, Sarah, too, is too weak to support her son when he needs her. When Frank deserts her, she becomes further dependent on Aunt Mae, and when Frank dies in battle, she retreats into her own world of delusion, leaving her son behind. It is not surprising that early in the novel David has come to realize that only Aunt Mae is strong enough for him to rely on.
The so-called Christians in the community mask their appetite for power over others by insisting that whatever they do is for the good of individuals or for the good of the community. Once David’s family cannot afford to pay a church pledge, they are outcasts and thus fair game for the cruelty of reformers. Unfortunately, David’s first teacher, Mrs. Watkins, is one of these self-righteous church leaders. Because David is not a church member, she feels justified in humiliating him and even in punishing him excessively. Similarly, the influential Preacher, who gave David a present while the family could still contribute to his church, is...
(The entire section is 1968 words.)