The Neon Bible ~ A Capsule Book Review

The Neon Bible ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

John Kennedy Toole was a New Orleans writer who was born in 1937. He was unable to get his famous novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, published during his lifetime. Through the persistence of his mother, Thelma Toole, the novel was finally published in 1980, more than ten years after John Kennedy Toole ended his own life in 1969. His only other (known) work is the novel The Neon Bible, which he wrote when he was only sixteen years old.   

For a sixteen-year-old writer, The Neon Bible is remarkably polished and accomplished. It demonstrates a raw writing talent that has to be extremely rare in adolescents in their mid-teens. The characters are well-drawn and believable, the dialogue crisp, the humor subtle, the story logical and rounded out to a satisfying conclusion. You never have the impression, while reading The Neon Bible, that here is a person who shouldn’t be writing a novel because he’s too young and doesn’t know enough.   

The lead character in The Neon Bible is a boy named David living in a small Southern town with his dysfunctional family. There’s a mother and a father, but the most interesting character is David’s Aunt Mae. She is an older woman past sixty who used to be “on the stage” singing and performing. She comes to live with David’s family because she has no place else to go. She can’t cook or do any of the domestic things most women do. She talks all the time about the men who used to be in love with her and about her experiences in show business.

David’s father loses his factory job, so the family has to go live in an old house out of town on a hill where the soil is bad and there are lots of trees. Every day David walks down the hill to school. Aunt Mae makes curtains for the house out of her old theatrical costumes. The people in the town don’t like her because she comes from some other place and she’s not like anybody else living in the town. She goes out on dates at night with men, frequently staying out all night. One of her men friends in particular is a musician and gets her a few singing engagements, which brings in a little money for the family to buy food.

David graduates from eighth grade and decides to quit school, while most of the other people in his class go on to high school and then to college. He gets a job in a drug store in town and has a girlfriend for a while, but she’s only in town for a little while and leaves, seriously jilting him.   

World War II intrudes and David’s father enlists. You get the impression he’s glad for the escape. He is sent to Italy, where he is eventually killed. David’s mother can’t handle the death of her husband, even though we got the impression when he was alive that she didn’t like him very much and the marriage was not a happy one. She gradually loses her mind and becomes like a ghost. Aunt Mae takes care of David’s mother during the day while David is working at the drug store.

Aunt Mae once again succumbs to the lure of show business and goes off to Nashville with her boyfriend to pursue fame and fortune as a singer. David can’t leave his mother unattended all day long, so he must quit his job at the drugstore. Aunt Mae tells him she will send for him and his mother in a “couple of weeks,” but we don’t believe her. Neither does David.

The story does not end well for David, as you might expect. He ends up running away on  a train. You have to read the book to know why he is running away and where he is going. If you are a fan of Southern fiction and coming-of-age stories, you are certain to enjoy the trip.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

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