- John Kennedy Toole, The Neon Bible, and A "Confederacy" of Friends and Relatives
In 1969, near Biloxi, Mississippi, John Kennedy Toole, found dead in his ancient Chevrolet, whose exhaust he had pumped into the back seat with a garden hose, left a suicide note beside him on the front seat and two novel manuscripts back home in New Orleans. One of those novels, A Confederacy of Dunces, won its author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and the other, on the twentieth anniversary of its author's death, has just been published by Grove Press.
This slim novel, Toole's first, written for a high school contest when Toole was only sixteen, neither won the competition nor was ever submitted again, but it became the center of a bitter family feud and publishing controversy that is ultimately more intriguing than the novel itself.
The story, told in loose first-person narrative, concerns a poor Mississippi boy named Dave from a poor, unnamed Mississippi town dominated by the Baptist Church. Dave, his mother, father, and sixty-year-old Aunt Mae (arriving in town with bleached Jean Harlow hair and a trunkful of old burlesque gowns) scrape out an existence on a slope above the town from which Dave gazes down on the gaudy neon Bible atop the church roof. The narrative has moments of charm, and the style shows a fine sense of irony, but the novel exhibits none of the gleeful humor that made Confederacy so captivating. And although the characters are convincing and the World War Two town is well depicted, the objective reader can [End Page 716] understand from the singularly gory and unmotivated ending why the novel did not win a high school prize. Most of those connected with this juvenile novel were not objective readers, however, and that made all the difference.
When Toole committed suicide, his mother and father inherited his estate, but when the elder Toole died a few years later, Louisiana's Napoleonic code gave Mr. Toole's relatives—a brother, nephew, and three nieces—half of the two novel manuscripts young Toole left. Toole's mother, Thelma, with keen foresight and a modest $2,065, got her in-laws to sign away their rights to Confederacy before it was published, but when the novel made its tremendous splash, the Tooles (by then reduced to four cousins) were less willing to relinquish their half of The Neon Bible, and Thelma vowed never to let them benefit from her son's talent.
She first tried to get the Napoleonic inheritance laws changed, but when she realized that she was going to die before that change occurred, she decided to leave the manuscript to a college professor friend, Kenneth Holditch, from whom she exacted a promise that he would never allow the manuscript to be published. Pressure mounted for her to publish the book, and even such an august literary figure as Walker Percy commented, "I would hope that she would not deprive the readers of the pleasure of something written by her son" (Feeney, Times Picayune A4). But Thelma, who had worked for ten years to get Confederacy into print and who firmly believed that the Tooles had slighted her genius son, resisted and renounced any tentative commitments she had made for publication.
Thus, in 1984, a New Orleans publisher brought a $250,000 damage suit against Mrs. Toole for breach of an oral contract to publish The Neon Bible. A week later Thelma died of cancer, and the manuscript was duly bequeathed to Kenneth Holditch. The law suit was immediately transferred to him as the new half-owner of the book, and more critics lined up to lament that the misguided Mrs. Toole, and now the misguided English professor, were keeping a beautiful book by a dead genius from the public.
Obligated by his promise to Mrs. Toole, the gallant Mississippi-born professor had no recourse but to fight the publication suit ("It's a matter of honor to me. Most people don't seem to understand that," he said at one point), and it dragged on for two more years before the judge finally decided that the oral contract...