Toole, the author of the classic farce A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), committed suicide before that Pulitizer Prize-winner was published. But now this sober coming-of-age novel set in rural Mississippi—written when Toole was 16—has surfaced after much bitter prepublication litigation among his heirs. Concerned particularly with religious bigotry, the tale is curiously au courant after the evangelical scandals of the past year. David, the credulous narrator, inhabits a gothic but typically southern landscape: a neon Bible lights up the sky at night, the local deacon burns Gone With the Wind because he thinks it's licentious, and the church snubs the family because Poppa can't afford dues. Aunt Mae, the book's presiding spirit, joins the family after a very minor theatrical career, and she provides a vivid contrast to small-town pettiness. She becomes David's confidante after Poppa beats Mother, and takes over the household when Poppa (and all the men) get drafted into WW II. Meanwhile, David lives through persecution by his teacher (a vile woman with halitosis) and, in a series of set pieces, most memorably evokes a revival meeting and a long public feud between the supporters of Aunt Mae, who gets a singing job, and the bigots of the local church. "I was getting tired about what the preacher called Christianity. Anything he did was Christian and the people in his church believed it, too." Finally, Poppa dies in the war, Momma gets autistic, Mae leaves for a gig in Nashville; and, later, David, who discovers that his mother has died, shoots a preacher who arrives (coincidentally) to take her to the state institution. David buries them both and flees on the next train. Though thin or undramatized in places, Toole's second (or, rather, first) is about as good as juvenilia can get—and eloquent testimony to the magnitude of our loss.
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