The Neon Bibleby John Kennedy Toole
“Heartfelt emotion, communicated in clean direct prose . . . a remarkable achievement.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
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 manuscript languished in a drawer and became the subject of a legal battle among Toole’s heirs. It was only in 1989, thirty-five years after it was written and twenty years after Toole’s suicide at thirty-one, that this amazingly accomplished and evocative novel was freed for publication.
The Neon Bible tells the story of David, a young boy growing up in a small Southern town in the 1940s. David’s voice is perfectly calibrated, disarmingly funny, sad, shrewd, gathering force from page to page with an emotional directness that never lapses into sentimentality. Through it we share his awkward, painful, universally recognizable encounter with first love, we participate in boy evangelist Bobbie Lee Taylor’s revival, we meet the pious, bigoted townspeople. 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.
“Heartfelt emotion, communicated in clean direct prose . . . a remarkable achievement.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A powerful novel that belongs on the shelf with the works of Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty. 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.” –William McKeen, Orlando Sentinel
“John Kennedy Toole’s tender, nostalgic side is as brilliantly effective as his corrosive satire. If you liked To Kill A Mockingbird you will love The Neon Bible.” –Florence King
“Shockingly mature. . . . Even at sixteen, Toole knew that the way to write about complex emotions is to express them simply.” –Kerry Luft, Chicago Tribune
This is the first time I’ve been on a train. I’ve sat in this seat here for about two or three hours now. I can’t see what’s passing by. It’s dark now, but when the train left, the sun was just beginning to set, and I could see the red and brown leaves and the tanning grass all along the hillside.
I feel a little better the further the train gets from the house. The tingling that has been running up and down the inside of my legs is stopping, and my feet feel like they’re really there now, and not like two cold things that don’t really belong to the rest of my body. I’m not as scared anymore.
There’s a colored fellow coming through between the seats. He’s snapped off every one of the lights over the seats. There’s just a tiny red one glowing at the end of the coach, and I’m sorry it isn’t bright here anymore by my seat, because I start to think too much in the dark about what’s back in the house.
They must have turned the heat off too. It’s cold in here. I wish I had a blanket to throw over my knees and something to put over this seat so the plush wouldn’t scratch the back of my neck.
If it was day outside, I could see where I was. I’ve never been this far from home in my life. 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. I’ve heard it plenty times, but I never thought I’d be riding with it. And I don’t mind the clicking. It sounds like the rain on a tin roof at night when it’s quiet and still and the only thing you can hear is the rain and the thunder.
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. We had to listen to stories some old woman read to us out of a grownup book that we didn’t understand.
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. I found that out when I learned to read and saw it in the mail a few Christmases later when we didn’t have any people over and we had to eat it ourselves. No one ever knew, though, that she didn’t make it, except me and Mother and maybe the man at the post office, but he was a deaf mute and couldn’t tell anybody.
I don’t remember any children my age coming around that Christmas. As a matter of fact, there weren’t any children my age living around us at all. 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. Heavy snows that year, although everyone thought they’d never come.
It was that spring that Mother’s Aunt Mae came to live with us. She was heavy but not fat, and about sixty, and came from out of state somewhere where they had nightclubs. I asked Mother why her hair wasn’t shiny and yellow like Aunt Mae’s, and she said some people were just lucky, and I felt sorry for her.
Next to the train, I remember Aunt Mae most. She smelled so strong of perfume that sometimes you couldn’t get near her without your nose stinging and having a hard time getting air. 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. And they were calling Aunt Mae all sorts of names like I had never heard before and really didn’t know the meaning of until I was almost ten years old.
“You had no right to dress that way,” Mother told her later when they were sitting in the kitchen. “You’ve deliberately hurt me and all of Frank’s friends. 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. “But Sarah, I didn’t know they’d take on that way. Why, I’ve worn that gown before audiences from Charleston to New Orleans. I forgot to show you my clippings, didn’t I? The notices, the notices! They were superb, particularly about that gown.”
“Look, dear” –Mother was pouring some of the special sherry in Aunt Mae’s glass to humor her–”on the stage that gown may have been quite successful, but you don’t know what it’s like to live in a small town like this. If Frank hears about things like that, he won’t let you stay here. Now, don’t ever do that to me again.”
The sherry made Aunt Mae quiet, but I knew that she hadn’t paid any attention to what Mother had said. It surprised me, though, to hear that Aunt Mae had been “on the stage.” I had seen the stage at the Town Hall, but the only things I had seen there were men making speeches, and I wondered just what Aunt Mae had done “on the stage.” I couldn’t see her as a speechmaker, so one day I asked her what she had done, and she pulled a big black scrapbook out of her trunk and showed it to me.
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. She read me what it said under the picture: ‘mae Morgan, popular singer at the Rivoli.” Then she said that the picture was a picture of her, and I said it couldn’t be because she didn’t have black hair, and besides, her name was Gebler, not Morgan. But she told me that both of these had been changed for “theatrical purposes,” so we turned the page. 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.
Although the book didn’t interest me, it made me like Aunt Mae more, and somehow it made her seem more important to me. 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 I told Poppa that he must’ve been drunk. And all the time Poppa just said uh-huh, uh-huh. And at night I’d hear him and Mother arguing in their room.
But until I began school, I still saw a lot of Aunt Mae. She didn’t go to church on Sunday with us, but in the afternoon she would take me walking down Main Street, and we’d look at all the window displays, and even though she was old enough to be my grandmother, men would turn and look at her, and wink too. 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. One day, after the display had been taken out of the window of that store, I went into Aunt Mae’s room to get her glasses for her, and there was that picture of the man in the undershirt with the razor blade tacked up in her closet. 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. We’d go out walking, with her so funny with her buttocks all sucked in and her stomach stuck out like a pregnant Jean Harlow, and me always so small and sick-looking. No one who didn’t know us would think we were in any way related.
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. And then I laughed too, because I had never been kidded before and didn’t know how.
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. The men were always nice, though, but used to laugh about her when she wasn’t around. It made me feel bad when they did, because there wasn’t a man in town Aunt Mae didn’t like.
When he wasn’t mad at the way she was dressing or walking, Poppa laughed at her too. Mother told him that Aunt Mae was really very pitiful and that he shouldn’t laugh at her. And that made me wonder. Aunt Mae wasn’t pitiful. At least I didn’t think so. 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. But I still didn’t think Aunt Mae was pitiful.
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 didn’t think too much about it because I didn’t know what little boys were like. I had only seen boys my age on the street, but I never had a chance to meet them. So I was sent to play with the son of one of Poppa’s friends at the factory. Every day when Poppa left for the factory, he would take me to the man’s house. When I first met the boy, I didn’t know what to say or what to do. 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 didn’t know what to do then, so I just began to cry. Poppa laughed at me and told me to fight him back, but I didn’t know how. 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. When he left, I vomited my sandwich and milk in the bushes and sat down and began to cry.
“You been crying,” Bruce said to me when he returned. The two friends he had brought with him were about seven and looked big to me.
“No, I haven’t.” I got up off the ground and blinked my bloodshot eyes to try to clear the tears up.
“You’re a sissy!” One of Bruce’s friends had his hand tight on my collar. I felt my throat lump up. I didn’t know what that word meant, but from the way he said it, I knew it wasn’t anything good. I looked over at Bruce, thinking he might come between me and this boy. He just stood there looking damn satisfied.
Then the first sock came. It was on my head right above my eye, and I began to cry again, only this time harder. They were all on me at once, I thought. I felt myself falling backward, and I landed with them on top of me. My stomach made a sick grinding noise, and I started feeling the vomit climb up into my throat. I was tasting blood on my lips now, and an awful scaredness was creeping from my feet up my legs. I felt the tingling go up till it grabbed me where I really felt it. Then the vomit came, over everything. Me, Bruce, and the other two. They screamed and jumped off me. And I laid there and the sun was hot and there was dust all over me.
When Poppa came to get me in the evening, I was sitting on Bruce’s front porch. The dust and blood and vomit were all still on me, and they were caked now. He looked at me for a while, and I didn’t say anything to him. He took me by the hand. We had to walk halfway across town to get home. All the time we didn’t say one word to each other.
That night is a night I’ll never forget. Mother and Aunt Mae cried over me and disinfected me and whatnot, and listened while I told them what had happened, and how Bruce’s mother wouldn’t let me in the house but made me wait on the porch all afternoon till Poppa came. I told them that Poppa hadn’t talked to me all the way home, and Aunt Mae called him names, but Mother just looked at him in the strangest sad way. He never talked the whole night, but just sat there in the kitchen reading the paper. I’m sure he must’ve read it over ten times.
I finally got to bed all bandaged up and feeling sore and hurt all over. Mother slept with me, because I heard her say to Aunt Mae that she couldn’t sleep with Poppa, not tonight. She asked me was I feeling better, and it felt good to have her near me. It made me forget the sores and my stomach that still felt sick.
After that, I was never as friendly with Poppa as I was before, and he felt the same way about me. I didn’t like it at all. Sometimes I wished we could be friends again, but there was something wrong neither of us could change. In a way I tried to blame it on Aunt Mae. At first I thought she had made him not talk to me. But I couldn’t blame it on her for long, and no one could ever not trust her.
By this time I was five. I was getting around the age to go to the county school, but Aunt Mae said I could wait another year and strengthen up some. Besides our Sunday walks, she began to play with me outdoors, and I must admit she knew a lot of rough games. When she wasn’t feeling well, we’d just sit in the mud and play with my toy cars. Aunt Mae would sit down with her legs crossed on the ground and run one of the cars over the little hill I had made. She was wearing slacks now because she saw Marlene Dietrich wearing them in some magazine. Jean Harlow was dead, and out of respect for her passing, Aunt Mae didn’t walk like her anymore. This made me feel better, anyway. Especially on Sunday afternoons. When we played with the cars, Aunt Mae always took the truck and played the truck driver. She drove carelessly, I thought, and one time rammed her truck into my hand by mistake and made it bleed. Since I doubt if I had much blood in me anyway, it didn’t make a mess.
“David,” Aunt Mae would say, “you must show more spirit with your car. You go too slow. Now, let me show you how to handle this.”
And she’d make her truck go so fast that it would knock up the dust all around us. And that would bury some of my small toys, so that I lost one or two every time we played cars. When we came in in the late afternoon, we were always dirty, and Aunt Mae would have to wash her hair. I sat on a chair by the tub and watched her hang her head over the basin to wash the soap out of her yellow hair. One time she sent me to her closet to get a little bottle for her. She’d rinse the stuff through her hair when she was finished washing it. I took the bottle back and put it on the shelf next to the razor blade man’s picture, which was getting pretty yellow around the edges. The shaving cream in the picture, and the undershirt too, were very faded, and there were lipstick marks on his face where they never were before. The marks were so large that I knew they had to be Aunt Mae’s.
I was getting bigger, and this was because of the playing outdoors with Aunt Mae. She was getting bigger too. This made her start on a diet, because she said she had to keep her “figure.” But I didn’t know what she meant, because she never did have anything special in the first place. Her hair was getting longer, and she wore roses in it behind her ears. In the front it was high and combed over a big false piece of cotton. From there it hung down behind her ears and behind the roses and ended on her back in a lot of curls. It attracted so much attention that a lot of the young girls in town began to wear their hair that way. Aunt Mae was very proud of this and mentioned it to Mother all the time. She tried to get Mother to wear her hair that way too, but she never succeeded.
So I felt that things had gone from bad to worse. When we went out on Sundays, Aunt Mae’s hair and the slacks got more attention than the Jean Harlow walk had ever done. She told me that maybe she could make some “contacts’ now that she had the new style. I didn’t know what she meant, but there were more winks at her after that, and she wore her feather boa higher so I couldn’t see her face at all.
It was about that time Aunt Mae got her boyfriend. I had seen him around town before, and I think he worked in one of the groceries. He must’ve been seventy years old. We first met him one day when we were out walking. We were looking in a window display when Aunt Mae whispered that someone was following us. We started off again, and I heard this shuffle-shuffle-hop behind us. I turned around and saw this old man following us. He was looking straight at Aunt Mae’s buttocks, which at the time were pretty flabby because she wasn’t sucking them in anymore. When he saw that I saw him, he looked away quick and started studying one of the window advertisements. It made me feel funny to know that he was looking at Aunt Mae in that particular place. Next Sunday he stopped and talked to us, and Aunt Mae acted like I had never seen her act before. She acted cute and giggled at everything he said. This won him over, or seemed to anyway, because he began calling on her at night the next week.
At first they just sat in the living room talking and drinking tea. Poppa seemed to like it, because he knew the old man and said he was good for Aunt Mae. I didn’t tell Poppa what he had been looking at that day on the street. I didn’t tell Aunt Mae either. She seemed to like the old man, and I knew she wouldn’t believe me if I told her. I didn’t know what he wanted, but I did know that it wasn’t nice to look at anyone in that place.
After he had come around about a month, they started sitting on the porch, and I remember hearing Aunt Mae’s giggle below me as I went to sleep at night. The next morning she would come down to breakfast late and usually be angry at everything. This went on all during that summer, and the old man, whose name was George, was at the house almost every night. He smelled of Lilac Vegetal, and between him and Aunt Mae I wondered how the two of them could be together without choking each other. I didn’t know what they did on the porch. I never thought they could be making love like young people did in the movies. When the nights of Aunt Mae’s giggling passed, those two began to be very quiet on the porch. And one morning, before dawn, when Mother was taking me to the bathroom, we passed Aunt Mae’s room and she wasn’t in there yet. I never asked Aunt Mae why she was still on the porch at three in the morning, but I remember wanting to.
During this time I saw very little of Aunt Mae. After she came to breakfast, she would play with me in a halfhearted way for a while, and then return to her room to get ready for George that night. I could smell the perfume coming from her window when I sat in the yard watching Mother hang the clothes up. I could hear Aunt Mae singing, too, but none of them were songs I knew. Except for one, and that was one I’d heard coming from the barroom in town when Mother and I passed it once going shopping. I never knew how Aunt Mae learned it. When I asked her, she said her nurse had sung it to her when she was a little girl. But I knew that nurses never sang like that.
I didn’t like George from the first time I saw him. His hair was long and gray, and it was always greasy. There were red marks all over his face, and it was a very lean one. He stood pretty straight for being about seventy. His eyes were shifty and never looked straight at you. In the first place, I was mad at him because he took almost all of Aunt Mae’s time away from me. He never paid much attention to me, but I remember when one night I was sitting in the living room and he was waiting for Aunt Mae he said I looked like a very tender one, and he pinched me so hard on the arm that the spot was colored for a week. I was always too afraid of him to scream, but I screamed at him enough in my dreams when I would see him riding my train over me as I was tied to the track.
He carried on with Aunt Mae all through that summer and into part of the fall. Aunt Mae never spoke of marriage, so I didn’t know why he was courting her, because all that normally leads to marriage somehow or other. I knew that Mother and Poppa weren’t feeling so easy about it as they had been. At night when Aunt Mae and George were on the porch or out for a walk, I would sit with them in the kitchen and listen to them talk. Mother told Poppa that she didn’t like George and that he was up to no good and things like that, and Poppa just told her that she was silly, but I could understand that he was wondering too.
One night Aunt Mae and George went for a walk in the hills and didn’t return until about six in the morning. I couldn’t sleep that night, so I was sitting at my window, and I saw them come into the yard. They didn’t talk to each other, and George left without even telling Aunt Mae good night, or maybe good morning. Mother and Poppa never found out. I was the only one who knew, but I didn’t say anything. I saw Aunt Mae pass by my bedroom when she came upstairs, and there were leaves all tangled in the back of her hair. I thought maybe she fell down.
About a month after that, we never saw George anymore, and Mother told me he left town. I didn’t think anything about it. As a matter of fact, I was happy, because now Aunt Mae and I could be together more. But it changed her. She never took me walking on the street anymore. She only played in the yard. She wouldn’t even go around the block to the drugstore but sent me there to buy what she wanted. Poppa and Mother didn’t invite friends over much anymore, or maybe they didn’t want to come. I got used to staying right in the yard and began to work up quite an imagination with my cars. Now it was Aunt Mae who was the slow one. Sometimes she’d just stare up over the trees for a long while, and I’d have to nudge her and tell her it was her turn to move her truck. Then she’d smile and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, David,” and begin pushing it along. But she either went the wrong way or did something wrong so that I ended up playing by myself while she just sat and stared at some nothing in the sky. One day she got a letter from George, but she just tore it up when she took it out of the mailbox and read the handwriting. I found out it was from him when I got older and could read and found it taped together in her dresser drawer. I never read what it said, because I had been taught not to do that kind of thing, but I was always curious about it. In eighth grade I found out what happened. George hadn’t really left town but had been arrested by the sheriff on a morals charge because some girl’s mother made some kind of complaint.
So here I am riding on this train. It’s still dark out except for neon signs we pass sometimes. The last town went by too fast for me to see the name. The clicking on the rails is getting faster, and I can see the trees crossing the moon quick now. The years before I went to school passed by just about as quick as those trees are passing by the moon.