Before being given this book, I hadn't realised that John Kennedy Toole, who killed himself at the age of thirty-two, had produced anything other than the wonderful, rollicking black satire A Confederacy of Dunces; and the story behind the publication of that work (due entirely to the persistent efforts of Toole's mother, Thelma, after his death) seemed astonishing enough. In some ways, the publication of The Neon Bible was even more unlikely. Written when the author was only sixteen and located after the wildly succesful publication of Confederacy, due to a complicated but somehow appropriate set of legal circumstances stemming from the oddities of Lousianan inheritance law, Thelma Toole attempted, succesfully during her lifetime, to stop the publication of the work. We have reason, however, to be grateful that she was ultimately unsuccesful.
This is an entirely different work to Confederacy, and one which will not appeal to everyone who enjoyed that novel. It is in a certain sense a classic example of the American outsider bildungsroman, following the development of its protagonist, David, in a small Louisiana town in the period preceding, during and after the Second World War.
In the first place, it's astonishing to consider that this is the work of a sixteen year old. While at times this is clearer than others (for example, in the hasty, out-of-character, and temporally overconvenient events leading to the end of the book and David's departure from the town), overall it displays an emotional maturity and a use of language which bely the author's youth. To me, the work didn't have the narrative pull of Confederacy; but it's more of an exploration than a story, a work in which the town itself is a character in the same way that New Orleans is in Confederacy, and in the classic American tradition of the centrality of geographical location in fiction. This may also be understood as one reason for the novel's sombre tone; as in Confederacy, we are concerned with outsiders, the way in which they deal with their status as such through complex and shifting alliances and acts of acceptance and rebellion - and to be an outsider in a small town is a very different question from being an outsider in a big city. The depiction of the torments and vicissitudes of this life are moving without becoming a litany of cruelties in the manner of more recent 'loser literature'.
In its exploration of small town hypocrisy and the stifling of the individual and the outsider, particularly as regards Christianity, and in its quasi-gothic sense of place and spare, stilted, yet still eloquent language, TNB reminded me of works from Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood to Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw The Angel. The other great strength of the work, to my mind, is the character of Aunt Mae who, like the central characters in Confederacy, is a creation who lives and breathes in the imagination of the reader beyond the confines of the novel itself.
Overall, while it is evident that this is the work of a writer in the process of formation, it is a better book than many written by succesful adult authors; and one which can be given interesting multiple readings, both in light of Toole's life and Confederacy, and in the tradition of the obsessions of the American novel.