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literature

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Toole, John Kennedy (1936-1969)  
 
page: 1  2  3  4  

A film based on The Neon Bible appeared under that title in 1995, directed by Terence Davies and starring Gena Rowlands as flamboyant Aunt Mae. Although several film versions of A Confederacy of Dunces have been rumored--one to have starred John Belushi shortly before the comic actor's death--Toole's best known work has proved more difficult to bring to the screen.

"the Christian thing to do"

"I knew the way the people in town thought about things," the young protagonist David explains in The Neon Bible, Toole's first attempt to explore the effects upon their more independent-minded neighbors of a narrow-minded community's discomfort with, and oftentimes outright opposition to, difference.

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"They always had some time left over from their life to bother about other people and what they did. They thought they had to get together to help other people out, like the time they got together about the woman who let a colored man borrow her car and told her the best place for her was up north with all the other nigger lovers, and the time they got the veterans with overseas wives out. If you were different from anybody in town, you had to get out. That's why everybody was so much alike."

The Neon Bible is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, set in a rural Mississippi town in the years from the start of the Great Depression through the end of World War II. David, an only child, is three years old when his maternal aunt comes to live with the family. Mae, a former nightclub singer, is in her sixties, continues to dye her hair a brassy blonde, and uses so much perfume that David has difficulty breathing in her presence.

Mae's love of a good time offends a community dominated by a Baptist preacher who does not doubt that his godliness makes him the fittest arbiter of other people's fates. He takes it upon himself to decide which of the indigent elderly should be moved into a state institution, and who among the town's broken hearted should be confined to a mental hospital, rationalizing that such actions are "the Christian thing to do."

When servicemen return from the war with Asian- or Mediterranean-born brides, the minister organizes a campaign to drive those families out of town so that their valley might remain racially "pure." His ersatz religiousness is symbolized by the large neon Bible that sits atop the roof of his church and can be seen from David's bedroom window at night: the religion imposed by the minister on the town is glitzy show, not genuine Christian charity.

When, due to the Depression, David's father loses his job at the local factory and is unable to continue paying the family's annual dues to the town's Baptist church, David suffers his first experience of being socially ostracized. His teacher in the early grades happens to be the preacher's foul-breathed wife, a monster of ignorance and tyranny, who persecutes David for belonging to a non-church going family.

Their poverty forces David and his family to live outside of town on a cinder-strewn lot where nothing can grow. His father's emotional depression and subsequent death during the war, his mother's loss of mental stability, and Aunt Mae's eventual departure in pursuit of a final chance at a singing career, leave David both socially and emotionally isolated, and result in the novel's unexpectedly violent conclusion.

David's peculiar combination of isolation and intelligence, however, makes him an extraordinarily innocent, yet prescient observer of the townspeople's behaviors, and a powerful witness to the consequences of a community's inability to accept and deal with social--in particular, gender and religious--differences.

"Chaos, Lunacy, and Bad Taste"

Even as he grows into young adulthood, David remains painfully thin, suggesting that the world has failed adequately to nourish him. At the center of Toole's second novel, however, is the Rabelaisian body of Ignatius J. Reilly, corpulent and gaseous, the source of thunderous eructations and of a never-ending flow of comforting warm air that fills the capacious folds of his corduroy trousers.

Ignatius lives on a seemingly endless supply of Paradise foot-long hot dogs and Dr. Nut sodas, depends upon macaroons for roughage, and exerts himself occasionally to make what his otherwise beleaguered mother readily testifies is "a delicious cheese dip." This shift in tone and characterization suggests that in the ten years intervening between the completion of his first and second novels, Toole had grown from a tragic, and at times even melodramatic, world view to a festively comic, though satirical one.

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