The Neon Bible was a novel that John Kennedy Toole wrote when he was sixteen about a rural Southern boy coming to realize he has to get out of town (actually, he doesn’t even live in town). Later, Toole wrote the carinvalesque Confederacy of Dunces, which he tried to get published. After his suicide in 1969 (at the age of 32) his mother succeeded in getting the book published. It was a critical and popular success and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Toole’s mother sought to keep the juvenile novel from being published with as much energy as she had devoted to getting Confederacy published, but the her son had left rights to his writing to multiple relatives… and they saw that they could make some money. In 1989 after Toole’s mother’s death, The Neon Bible was published. Since it remains in print, I presume it has made some money for the relatives.
It was also adapted to the screen by Terence Davies (House of Mirth, Distant Voices-Still Lives). Like Toole’s David, Davies had a brutish father and tried to avoid bullies like his father and various Liverpool schoolmates to feel safe in the realm of females (however much the females needed male brutality…)
The early part of “The Neon Bible” seems like a mix of Truman Capote and “Streetcar Named Desire.” Later, there’s a resemblance to the Cloris Leacham part of “The Last Picture Show.”
The singing career of David’s mother’s sister Mae (the great Gena Rowlands) has declined as she has aged and Mae arrives to stay with Sarah (Diana Scarwid). David’s father (played by Denis Leary) is about as happy to have his sister-in-law hanging about as Stanley Kowalski, but it is Sarah rather than Mae for whom the men in white coats come.
David drops out of school and takes a job in the town’s drugstore to support his mother, after the father does not come back from Italy during the Second World War. David also meets a beautiful girl who is visiting the valley and has First Love (confounding expectations that he will grow up to be gay!). Mae beings singing again and heads off to Nashville. It is through her that David knows that there is a wider world, and a chance there draws her back to it.
After a painfully slow hour and twenty minutes (with very long takes shot by a static camera), the Southern Gothic blood starts being spilled. Catharsis never arrives, alas.
Since David is recollecting what happened on a train heading as far as his money will take him, I should like the movie more than I do, since train travel in a movie is always a plus for me. Also, actor/singer Jacob Tierney plays the young man with the burden of a crazy mother well, and Gena Rowlands enlivens the proceedings.
But not enough. Shots are held very long, not much happens, and most of what does happen is predictable (most — not all!). This beautifully shot rural Southern sadness has been done rather often. Mick Coulter provides an Edward Hopper look (I know that Hopper was not Southern, but the palpable loneliness of it all…)
“Neon Bible” made me appreciate more (than when I was watching it) “Red Dirt”, another film with a madwoman for whom a young man feels he must sacrifice his own life, more than when I saw it and though it was slow. And the Gothic qualities do not rival the grotesqueness of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction.