The Neon BibleBook - 1989
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In 1976, Toole's mother, convinced of her son's genius, delivered a manuscript to Walker Percy who was teaching creative writing at Loyolla University. She pronounced it a masterpiece, and - doubtful at first - Percy agreed. In 1981, that manuscript (A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES) won - posthumously - a Pulitzer Prize for Toole. He also had an additional manuscript, discovered after his death, that would take another eight years to see publication due to Louisiana's bizarre inheritance laws.
THE NEON BIBLE, written at the tender young age of sixteen, is an account of life in a small, bigoted Mississippi town during the 1940s. Written from the perspective of a young boy named David, the town is full of small-minded townspeople eager to beset their morals on others. "If somebody got to hate something," David observes, "and he was the right person, everybody had to hate it too . . ." Town bullies include the preacher, from whose sign atop the church the novel derives its name.
Enter Aunt Mae. A veteran of the stage far beyond her prime, she brings the only color to the town. Without Aunt Mae, there is no story. She provides the source of the novel's tension, delivered in such innocent missteps the reader can't help but love her and see the moralists for fools. She is also David's only window to a world beyond town and the distant horizons observed from a home the family shares on a hilltop perch. Prior to Aunt Mae, David's world only extends as far as his eyes can take him. After Aunt Mae, its possibilities are endless. Such is the trade-off for loss of innocence.
In his final chapter - a chapter beyond CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES and THE NEON BIBLE - John Kennedy Toole wrote himself out of existence. At the age of 31, the promising young writer committed suicide, and the literary world is forever the lesser for it.
Written at the age of sixteen, THE NEON BIBLE (Grove Press, $9.00) is an account of life in a small Mississippi town. Set in the forties, it follows the life of David and his family. The town is full of characters, mostly bigoted. A town in which "If somebody got to hate something and he was the right person, everybody had to hate it too . . ." There are a number of town bullies, the preacher leading the way. It's a town that labels poor treatment of others as Christian charity. David and his family are the recipients of such charity in the form of expulsion from the Church because they can't afford the dues. It's a town where one's wealth correlates directly with their prestige in the Kingdom of God, and being from the wrong side of the tracks is a sin.
David is from the wrong side of the tracks.
With THE NEON BIBLE - named for the neon sign mounted atop the church - Toole peels back the exterior of the small Southern town and exposes its ugly substrate. His brilliance, though, isn't in calling out the hypocrisy which invades the whole of town life. The author's brilliance is in successfully capturing the soul of a small town through the eyes of a boy, and leaving us with an indelible record of small town Mississippi life in the 1940's.
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Aunt Mae was more like a big bright sweet-smelling flower to me. A red one, maybe, that had a strong smell like honeysuckle, but not quite so innocent."
-John Kennedy Toole, THE NEON BIBLE
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