Between Queer Performances: John Kennedy Toole's the Neon Bible and A Confederacy of Dunces

By Hardin, Michael | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Between Queer Performances: John Kennedy Toole's the Neon Bible and A Confederacy of Dunces


Hardin, Michael, The Southern Literary Journal


John Kennedy Toole's personal life, tragically foreshortened by his suicide at age thirty-one, remained a mystery after his death in 1969. The extra-textual clues to issues such as his sexuality have been destroyed. In his introduction to Toole's The Neon Bible, W. Kenneth Holditch mentions, "John revealed little of his personal life to anyone" and "He had left a note addressed 'To my parents,' which his mother read and then destroyed" (vii). Although Toole wrote The Neon Bible when he was 15 or 16, Thelma Toole, his mother, blocked its publication until 1989, after her death. On the other hand, she actively sought publication for A Confederacy of Dunces, which was written during Toole's mid-20s; Thelma Toole's dedication, illustrated by the now mythic presentation of A Confederacy of Dunces to Walker Percy, resulted in its publication in 1980, eleven years after Toole's death (Holditch x-xi). Through these novels, we can investigate the ways in which his protagonists perform their conflicted sexualities.

Both of Toole's protagonists, David (The Neon Bible) and Ignatius (A Confederacy of Dunces), find themselves compelled into performances of heterosexuality while being drawn to queer identities. This essay will first address the domestic sphere as David's idealization of an accepted gay existence in The Neon Bible and then continue with an examination of A Confederacy of Dunces, in which both the space of the domestic and the image of the Quarter queen are rejected for the ultimate performance, the New York sophisticate.

The mysteries of Toole's brief life have led many to read David's and Ignatius's difficulties with sexuality as representative of Toole's. The problem with these interpretations is that instead of positing a possible nonheterosexual solution, the critics all too often read his sexuality as childish or immature; in turn, this interpretation is used as a guide for reading Toole's protagonists. William Bedford Clark describes Ignatius in terms of "perverse childishness" (275) and states that "Ignatius' aversion to physical contact and resistance to the demands of natural sexuality have been two of the dominant symptoms of his infantilism" (276). Keith D. Miller argues that Ignatius' problem is "an utter inability to mature" (33). Richard F. Patteson and Thomas Sauret conclude that "sexual fears may be partly responsible for Ignatius' avoidance of love .... Living with his mother at the age of thirty is a kind of escape--from adulthood, from sexuality, from rejection" (86). Lloyd M. Daigrepont is more direct: "Ignatius also exhibits a juvenile preoccupation with sex, masturbating and daydreaming about absurd encounters" (75). Even more troubling is Robert Walter Rudnicki's argument that "the 'child/victim motif' is all too revealing of Toole's troubled state of mind during these years, especially when both texts are read against one another" (234). None of the critics mentions the possibility of the author's homosexuality. While I have my own thoughts about Toole's sexuality, the purpose in mentioning these critics' readings is to point out that they enforce a heteronormative performance of the text, one that we must abandon if we are to understand the queer performance within the novels. By abandoning heteronormative readings of these texts, and looking instead at how sexuality is performed within the novels, we will see a rather clear queer subtext.

In The Neon Bible, the conservatism of the community is crucial to understanding the queer dynamic, because it reveals the need to closet the protagonist, David, making the inclusion of a gay teacher, Mr. Farney, and his partner all the more significant. According to Judith Butler, "'performance' is not a singular 'act' or event, but a ritualized production, a ritual reiterated under and through constraint, under and through the force of prohibition and taboo, with the threat of ostracism and even death controlling and compelling the shape of the production" (95). …

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