FEATURE THE NEON BIBLE
During his short lifetime, John Kennedy Toole’s writing was ignored. Twenty-five years after his suicide it is hot property. As his novel The Neon Bible makes it to the big screen, Kathleen Morgan traces its controversial history and Trevor Johnston (below) speaks to the film’s director Terence Davies.
f there is a heaven for tragically misunderstood artists. Nirvana’s fatal dropout Kurt Cobain is probably getting pep talks from the likes of American novelist John Kennedy Toole. Both were suicides who sampled the sweet taste of success from the wrong side of the grave.
lf Cobain’s meteoric rise to martyrdom was triggered the moment he put a gun to his face. Toole’s was more of a struggle. It took years of crusading by his devastated mother before his satirical novel A Confederacy 0f Dunees was published. More than a decade after the 31- year-old Toole attached a hosepipe to his car exhaust. fed it into the vehicle and locked the doors on Mississippi. his novel won the Pulitzer Prize. It has been translated into more than ten languages and carved him a niche as one of the American south‘s greatest novelists. up there. some believe. with William Faulkner.
Following the success of the novel — rejected by a string of publishers in Toole’s lifetime — another manuscript was discovered among his belongings by his mother Thelma. A tale of religious bigotry and adolescent angst written when Toole was just sixteen. The Neon Bible has been adapted for the big screen by writer and director Terence Davies.
Although lacking the marks of mature genius that fired A C onﬁ'demcy ()f Dunees, the novel is absorbing and moving. shot through with an awareness of racial and religious divisions that characterised Toole‘s American South. The passion between its pages is matched by a story of familial bitterness and legal wrangles leading up to its publication in 1989.
The book’s unexpected success opened a yawning gap between Thelma Toole and her dead husband’s family. On discovering The Neon Bible. she was reminded by her lawyers that under Louisiana law. the Toole family held half the book‘s rights. Determined they would not proﬁt from her son’s work. she appointed an American academic guardian of the novel weeks before her death. securing his promise
10 The List 20 Oct-2 Nov I995
Toole be or
not Toole be
Bible bashing: Gena Rowlands and Jacob Tierney in Terence Davis’s The Neon Bible
that he would block the novel‘s publication. Professor of American literature at New Orleans Univerisity. Kenneth llolditch
befriended Thelma by chance. After reading his ,
review of A Confederacy ()_/' Dances in a Louisiana newspaper. Toole‘s mother contacted him to thank him. The pair becatne close friends as she began a fervant crusade. to promote her son’s worth. ‘lle was a remarkably good writer.‘ says llolditch. who is writing an
autobiography of Toole. ‘xl ('on/edemev (1/
Dances is a work of genius.‘
The euphoria was not to last — the discovery of The Neon Bible inflamed family divisions. sparking an ongoing saga. ‘I felt rather bad about the whole thing. but I wanted to do what Mrs Toole asked me to do.‘ says llolditch. l-le insists Thelma’s bitterness was a reaction to the Toole family‘s attitude to her son. not the book‘s financial implications. She was determined they would not profit from the work of a suicide they blamed for having disgraced the family name.
After Thelma‘s sued
death. the Tooles
llolditch in a farcical court case. during which the judge threatened to treat the book like a piece of land. putting it up for public auction. A horrified llolditch relinquished his rights to the book and The Neon Bible was published in l98‘). John Kennedy Toole was back in business.
llolditch is resigned to the outcome: ‘1 still have bad feelings about the way it happened. but I always felt it was inevitable the book would be published. I think Mrs Toole would have been pleased it was well received.’ He welcomes Terence Davies‘ cinematic interpretation of the book. if somewhat grudgingly — llolditch feels he should have been more involved in its making and has yet to see the film. ‘1 never knew the movie was out until someone called me after having read a review.‘ he says.
It could be some time before the cloud is lifted from John Kennedy Toole’s grave. The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole has been republished in paperback by Penguin a! [5.99.
Bright lights, dark places
or a filmmaker whose work seems to have been torn from his own autobiography, it was something of a surprise Terence Davies’ new film turned out to be an adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon
Here was a world far away from the working class Liverpool of Davies’ previous trilogy, Distant Voices, Still lives and The Long Day Closes. In these films, the writer-director’s feel for the minutiae of everyday experience contributed to the remarkable final results,
blending a deep affection for the details of a particular culture with a universal insight into the way memories shape us. Could Davies pull off the same trick with material that wasn’t his own, taking him to the Deep South’s 19408 Bible Belt? It was a question he immediately asked himself.
‘Elizabeth Karlsen the producer read the book when it was at galley stage,’ he explains, perched on an armchair in his modest, terribly neat East London flat, with a cup of tea to sustain him. ‘She brought it to me and I told her | always have the same approach to these