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Grove Press. John Kennedy Toole is one of those writers - Malcolm Lowry and Sylvia Plath are others - whose early suicides turned their lives into legends. In Toole's case, the legend both incorporated and galvanized posthumous literary success: in the wake of his death at the age of 31, his devoted mother sends the manuscript of ''A Confederacy of Dunces'' to several publishers. Undaunted by their rejections, she pesters the novelist Walker Percy until he agrees to read it.
He is impressed by the novel, and encourages the Louisiana State University Press to publish it. The book goes on to win critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction - kudos that have now led to the publication of Toole's only other surviving work of fiction, a novel, written when he was a teen-ager, titled ''The Neon Bible.
Peopled with larger-than-life characters and crammed full of comic incidents, ''Dunces'' was hailed by many critics as a masterful satire on contemporary civilization.
In this writer's opinion, the praise seemed overdone. Though the novel amply demonstrated its author's energy and capacity for narrative invention, it was a wildly uneven work, veering between bitterness and sentimentality, pretentious misanthropy and dime-store-novel histrionics. Whatever appeal its hero, Ignatius J. Reilly, garnered by virtue of being an eccentric outsider seemed neutralized by his more unpleasant attributes: self-absorption and egotism bordering on paranoia; laziness and superiority masquerading as intellectual superiority ; intolerance and misogyny directed primarily at his overbearing mother and importunate girlfriend.
In addition, Ignatius suffered from a gratuitously nasty obsession with smells and bodily functions, and a taste for belching. It's possible, of course, for the reader of ''Dunces'' and ''The Neon Bible'' to see certain resemblances between their two heroes.
Like Ignatius, the youthful hero of ''The Neon Bible'' - David, by name - sees himself as a misfit, someone set apart from the community at large. Like Ignatius, he's unusually repressed about sex. And like Ignatius, he has a problem with a formidable mother, who dominates his day-to-day life and his long-term fortunes.
There, however, the similarities end. Whereas Ignatius was a cynic, David is that cynic's precursor - an innocent and romantic, as yet unspoiled by the world. Whereas the tone of ''Dunces'' was farcical and Rabelaisian, that of ''The Neon Bible'' is lyrical and elegiac. Whereas ''Dunces'' was animated by anger, ''The Neon Bible'' seems rooted in melancholy and nostalgia.
If less overtly ambitious than the previously published book, ''The Neon Bible'' also emerges as an altogether more organic and satisfying novel - a novel that works on the reader not through willful manipulation, but through heartfelt emotion, communicated in clean, direct prose.
Written in the flexible form of a first-person reminiscence, ''The Neon Bible'' tells us the story of David's coming of age. The time is the 's; the place, a small town in the South. As in so many novels of this sort, the narrator begins by giving us a portrait of his family and the narrow-minded community he grew up in; he ends by leaving this hermetic world for unknown vistas beyond.
When we first meet him, David is a shy 3-year-old, playing with a toy train. He is half in love with his Aunt Mae, a loud, flirtatious woman, who's arrived to stay with his parents. Aunt Mae's flamboyant clothes and blowsy manner make her something of a joke in town; and in observing her treatment at the hands of local puritans, David receives his first lesson in the moralistic nature of life in his hometown.
Although David's family had once lived in a ''little white house in town that had a real roof you could sleep under when it rained,'' his father has since lost his job, forcing them all to move to a tin-roofed shack that sits alone on a hill on the outskirts of town. From there, David has a view of the entire valley: the new homes built by a land developer, the church emblazoned with a neon sign of the Bible, and the house where they used to live.
In their backyard, David's father clears away a patch of scraggly pine trees and spends a week's earnings on seeds that will never grow in the unforgiving soil. His mother has a fit over his foolishness and they come to blows. Time passes quickly in ''The Neon Bible. He somehow survives the humiliations of school, gets a job in the local drugstore, falls for a pretty out-of-town girl and is initiated into the perils of love.
There are other changes in the offing as well. Aunt Mae gets a job as a singer with a local band and falls in love with one of the musicians. David's father goes off to war and is killed somewhere in Europe.
And his mother, unable to cope with her husband's death, retreats further and further into madness. David is scared that the local preacher, who's never forgiven his family for failing to pay its church dues, will somehow manage to commit her to a home for the insane. Though it ends somewhat abruptly in an incongruous outburst of violence and blood, ''The Neon Bible'' not only stands as a remarkable achievement for a year old writer, but it also serves as a testament more valid than ''Dunces,'' in this critic's opinion to the genuine talents of Toole.
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The Neon Bible
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Books of The Times; A Novelist's Story of Love, Pain and (Neon) Signs of Life
Grove Press. John Kennedy Toole is one of those writers - Malcolm Lowry and Sylvia Plath are others - whose early suicides turned their lives into legends. In Toole's case, the legend both incorporated and galvanized posthumous literary success: in the wake of his death at the age of 31, his devoted mother sends the manuscript of ''A Confederacy of Dunces'' to several publishers. Undaunted by their rejections, she pesters the novelist Walker Percy until he agrees to read it. He is impressed by the novel, and encourages the Louisiana State University Press to publish it.