John Kennedy Toole—who won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling comic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces —wrote The Neon Bible for a literary contest at the age of sixteen. The Neon Bible tells the story of David, a young boy growing up in a small Southern town in the s. From the opening lines of The Neon Bible , David is fully alive, naive yet sharply observant, drawing us into his world through the sure artistry of John Kennedy Toole. It is a moving evocation of the small-town South in the mid-twentieth century, and it is an expertly crafted tale of an adolescent boy finding the courage to make the decisions to change his life. Even at sixteen, Toole knew that the way to write about complex emotions is to express them simply.
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John Kennedy Toole—who won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling comic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces —wrote The Neon Bible for a literary contest at the age of sixteen. The Neon Bible tells the story of David, a young boy growing up in a small Southern town in the s.
From the opening lines of The Neon Bible , David is fully alive, naive yet sharply observant, drawing us into his world through the sure artistry of John Kennedy Toole. It is a moving evocation of the small-town South in the mid-twentieth century, and it is an expertly crafted tale of an adolescent boy finding the courage to make the decisions to change his life.
Even at sixteen, Toole knew that the way to write about complex emotions is to express them simply. I feel a little better the further the train gets from the house.
They must have turned the heat off too. If it was day outside, I could see where I was. We must be almost two hundred miles away now. With nothing to see, you have to listen to the click-click-click of the train. Sometimes I hear the whistle sounding far ahead.
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 had that leaked through the nail holes too.
People came to see us that Christmas. We always had some people in the house, coming in blowing and rubbing their hands together and shaking out their coats like it was snowing outside. But there was no snow. Not that year. But they were nice, and brought me things. I remember the preacher gave me a book of Bible stories. But that was most likely because my mother and father were paying church members then, with their names on the rolls and both of them in the Adult Study Class that met every Sunday at nine and Wednesday night at seven for a social.
I was in the Pre-School Play section, but we never played like the name said. Mother was very hospitable that year I got the train. Everybody got some of her fruitcake that she was proud of.
She said it was from an old family recipe, but I found out later she got the cake through a mail order from some company in Wisconsin called the Olde English Baking Company, Limited. After Christmas was over, I stayed in the house and played with my train. It was too cold outside, and about January it began to snow. She was heavy but not fat, and about sixty, and came from out of state somewhere where they had nightclubs. Next to the train, I remember Aunt Mae most.
I never saw anybody with hair and clothes like that, and I sat and just looked at her sometimes. When I was four Mother gave a party for some of the wives of the factory workers, and Aunt Mae came into the living room in the middle of the party wearing a dress that showed almost all her front, except for the nipples, which I knew you never could show.
The party ended soon after that, and as I was sitting on the porch, I heard the women talking to each other as they left. If I knew you were going to act this way, I would never have let you come to live with us.
Aunt Mae ran her finger over the button of the robe Mother had put on her. The notices, the notices! They were superb, particularly about that gown. On the first page there was a picture from a newspaper of a slender young girl with black hair and a feather in it. She looked cross-eyed to me, but Aunt Mae said that was only where the paper had touched up the picture wrong.
The rest of the book was the same, except that in every picture Aunt Mae got fatter, and near the middle of it, her hair turned blonde. Toward the end there were fewer pictures, and they were so small that the only way I could tell it was Aunt Mae was by her hair. I would sit near her at dinner and listen to everything she said, and one day Poppa began to ask me everything Aunt Mae said to me when we were together, and kept on asking me every day after that.
I told him how Aunt Mae told me about the count who used to kiss her hand and always ask her to marry him and go to live with him in Europe. And about the time some man drank wine out of one of her slippers. And all the time Poppa just said uh-huh, uh-huh.
But until I began school, I still saw a lot of Aunt Mae. I saw our butcher do that one Sunday, and I knew he had children because I had seen a little girl playing in his store.
I never had a chance to see what Aunt Mae was doing because she had a feather boa that hid her face from me. But I think she winked back at the men. She wore her skirts to her knees, too, and I remember hearing women talk about it. We walked up and down Main Street all afternoon until it got dark, but never through the park or into the hills where I really wanted to go.
I was always so happy when the displays in the windows were changed, because I got tired of seeing the same pictures week after week. Aunt Mae stopped us on the busiest corner, and we saw the display there so often that it almost crowded the train out of my dreams. Once I asked Aunt Mae if she ever got tired of seeing that same picture of the man advertising the razor blades, but she told me to just keep on looking at it and maybe it would teach me how to shave for when I was older.
For some reason or other, I never asked her just how or why it was there. Aunt Mae was good to me, though.
She bought me little toys and taught me how to play games and would take me to the movies on Saturdays. After we had seen Jean Harlow a few times, I began to notice that Aunt Mae was talking through her nose and wearing her hair pulled behind her ears and hanging on her shoulders. She stuck her stomach out, too, when she walked. Sometimes she would grab me and hug me close right between her bosom so that I was almost smothered.
Then she would kiss me with her big mouth and leave lipstick marks all over me. And when I sat in her lap, she told me stories about her days on the stage, and her boyfriends, and the presents she got. She was my only playmate, and we got along all the time.
Mother was glad to see that we were such good friends. She always had more time to work because Aunt Mae and I were playing together. Aunt Mae kidded, too. She told me that when I got older, I could be her boyfriend.
And when I took it seriously, she laughed and laughed. The town then was a little quieter than it is now, because the war made it a little larger. And if it was quieter than it is now, you can imagine just how quiet it must have been.
Aunt Mae was so different from everybody else that she just naturally attracted attention. When she first moved in with us, I remember everyone asked Mother what kind of a relation she was. Although she was so well known, she was never invited anywhere, and the women never got friendly with her. And that made me wonder. And I told Mother what I thought too, and that just made Poppa laugh more. And then I was mad at Poppa and never told him again what Aunt Mae would talk to me about.
And then we were mad at each other, and I was sorry I had said anything at all. Aunt Mae said that I was getting paler and paler, so we went out walking every afternoon. Personally I thought I was getting taller and much pinker around the cheeks, but I had nothing to do, so I went with her. We had just seen a movie with Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone, so Aunt Mae put some grease in my hair and put a tie on me and said that I did look something like him. We began our daily walks, and at first I liked them, but after a while everyone in town came out to see us go by and laughed as we passed.
Aunt Mae said that it was just jealousy, but anyway, our walks stopped except for Sunday. Although I never suspected it, I was getting very well known in town just because I walked out with Aunt Mae.
And people began to tell Poppa that his little boy was very famous. That was one of the reasons the walks stopped. Even though she never spoke to hardly anyone, Aunt Mae knew all the gossip around town and could even tell Mother things she never knew. It was about this time that Poppa decided I should go play with other little boys instead of Aunt Mae. I had only seen boys my age on the street, but I never had a chance to meet them.
He was about six, and a little bit bigger than I was, and his name was Bruce. The first thing he did was grab my cap off my head and throw it into the stream by his house. I had a terrible time that day and wanted to be back home with Mother and Aunt Mae. Bruce could do anything. Climb, jump, fight, throw. I followed behind him and tried to do what he did.
At lunchtime his mother called us in and gave us some sandwiches and told me that if Bruce did anything to me to just give it back to him. And I nodded, and said yes, I would. When she turned away, Bruce knocked my milk glass over, and his mother turned around and thought I did it and slapped me in the face. Bruce laughed, and she told us to go outside and play. That was the first time I had been slapped on the face, and it made me feel terrible. I could hardly do anything after that, so Bruce went to get some of his friends to play.
Books of The Times; A Novelist's Story of Love, Pain and (Neon) Signs of Life
Its main appeal is as an early look at the writer who would later write A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole, describing the novel during correspondence with an editor, wrote "In , when I was 16, I wrote a book called The Neon Bible , a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South—and the fundamentalist mentality is one of the roots of what was happening in Alabama, etc. The book, of course, was bad, but I sent it off a couple of times anyway. Like A Confederacy of Dunces , the novel had a long and difficult road to publication.
The Neon Bible
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