Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole

The story of John Kennedy Toole is a pretty infamous one: In 1969, Toole committed suicide by connecting a garden hose to his exhaust pipe through the window of his car. In 1980, after pressing upon author Walker Percy, Toole's mother succeeded in publishing a novel that Toole left behind. In 1981, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for that novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.

But Toole left behind another manuscript: a novel he had written in 1954, at the age of seventeen, called The Neon Bible. Toole's mother, who had been so adamant about publishing Confederacy, fought the rest of his family to keep The Neon Bible from public eye, an effort which failed with her death.

The introduction--a sort of bitter defense penned by Toole's literary executor, who promised Toole's mother he would prevent the publication--does not say why she was so reticent to give up The Neon Bible, but perhaps it was because the woman who saw so much genius in her son's second novel realized the first was pretty mediocre.

The Neon Bible opens with a young man on a train, his first time. This gets him thinking about trains:

But I had a train of my own. It was a toy one I got for Christmas when I was three. That was when Poppa was working at the factory and we lived in the little white house in town that had a real roof you could sleep under when it rained, and not a tin one like the place on the hill that leaked through the nail holes too.

This clumsy segue leads to a long story about the man's upbringing in a small Louisiana valley town, and the struggles of his impoverished family. The narrative tracks the way that, as he grows up, he becomes increasingly aware of the damaging effect by the town's preacher and religious establishment, which scrutinizes his family--especially his eccentric Aunt Mae--and generally antagonizes all individuality and creativity. The neon bible sits on top of the local church, its color and brightness serving as a stark contrast for the darkness beneath.

To discover in The Neon Bible the seeds of what made Confederacy so fantastic requires deep digging. The philosophical streak of Ignatius Reilly is non-existent; Boethius, for instance, makes no appearances. The broad, pointed comedy that makes Reilly so over-the-top here is veiled by youthful earnestness. Take, for instance, Toole's description of the local grade school teacher:

Mr. Farney was different from the other people in the valley. I heard he was from Atlanta, but that wasn't why he was different. It was the way he acted that made him strange. He didn't walk the way other men did. He walked more like a woman who swayed her hips.

This may surprise you, but I believe Mr. Farney is a homosexual. I say veiled, but only in the sense that Toole chooses to view everything through the lens of a child--not that it is in any way subtle. In fact, The Neon Bible seems to be an exercise in unsubtlety. We might charitably call it earnestness. But Toole's style here reminds one of Picasso, who only felt free to twist his figures into Cubism when he had mastered the realist form.

Of course, it's barely fair to criticize the effort of a seventeen-year old, but there are so many wonderful things to say about Confederacy that Toole's legacy seems safe. Unfortunately, The Neon Bible is vastly more interesting as an artifact than a novel, and serves as a valuable lesson regarding the publication of the works of the deceased, both in controversies past, like Nabokov's, and possible, like Salinger's. Moreover, it is a lesson for the aspiring writer that first novels don't have to be masterpieces.

1 comment:

Christopher said...

Fun Fact: Toole gassed himself on the way back to New Orleans from Milledgeville, GA, where he had gone to see Flannery O'Connor's house.