Published by Canongate
Review by W. R. Greer
Sometimes it's difficult to review a novel after it's received a level of notoriety, because all the hullabaloo surrounding the novel can create a prejudgment of the work. Especially when some reviews heap praise on a book, and others revile it. Vernon God Little is a biting satire of life in central Texas written by an Australian and has won the 2003 Man Booker Prize, the highest accolade for a work of fiction in the British Commonwealth. Many American critics have written scalding reviews, taking the book to task for its nasty portrayal of every unsavory stereotype of life in the United States. These reviewers almost seem more concerned with the image of America the rest of the world would glean from reading, then praising, Vernon God Little.
The author, DBC Pierre, is an Australian named Peter Finlay, who lived much of his life in Mexico and Texas. His life has not been one spent in the halls of academia or the ivory towers of the literary world, but in the muck and mire of drugs, gambling, and he is a self-confessed "conniving bastard." The DBC in his pseudonym stands for Dirty But Clean. Having never lived in central Texas myself and since the author has, I would have to defer to his account of life there depicted in Vernon God Little. I approached reading the book with a bit of hesitation, not knowing what to expect. Was this a book the British loved since it poked fun at America, or was this a well-written satire? I decided to keep an open mind when reading it, knowing that if it was a good satire, that it would probably be a bit over the top, but it should be funny. It should make me laugh at scenes and behaviors that contain a spark of recognizable truth to them.
By page 6, I was laughing out loud.
Vernon Little is a 15-year old boy living in Martirio, Texas, and his best friend, Jesus, has just murdered 16 of their classmates before killing himself. Since the murderer is dead, the town wants vengeance and turns its sights on Vernon, assuming he must have been part of his best friend's nefarious plot. As the book begins, Vernon has been arrested and is being questioned by a deputy sheriff. In a style that will be repeated often throughout the book, the deputy isn't too concerned with the truth as Vernon wants to tell it, but rather one that fits her idea of what the truth should be. The following exchange sets up many of the ideas for the rest of the book:
'Uh-huh. Let me explain that my job is to uncover the truth. Before you think that's a hard thing to do, I'll remind you that, stuss-tistically, only two major forces govern life in this world. Can you name the two forces underlying all life in this world?'
'Uh -- wealth and poverty?'
'Not wealth and poverty.'
'Good and evil?'
'No -- Cause and effect. And before we start I want you to name the two categories of people that inhabit our world. Can you name the two proven categories of people?'
'Causers and effecters?'
'No. Citizens -- and liars. Are you with me Mister Little. Are you here?'
Wealth and poverty, good and evil, cause and effect, these are all themes DBC Pierre explores in the novel. Vernon, however, has trouble understanding any of them. The novel is told in first-person narration from Vernon. Like many 15-year olds, Vernon's speech is full of profanities and a skewed view of life, and he often shares his learnings with us. Coupled with mangled words, some done purposely, some from a lack of education or a Texas dialect that can't wrap the tongue and mind around certain words, Vernon's narration initially wears on the reader. Soon, though, this voice of a disaffected teenager worms into your brain and provides a keen insight into his world because of it. When I put the book down, I would find an urge to fill a sentence with mispronunciations and profanities the way Vernon would. While not quite a Holden Caulfield voice for a new generation, it's an effective vehicle for letting us see the world through Vernon's eyes.
Vernon lives with his mom, and with his dad disappeared and assumed dead, money is scarce. His mom has mastered the art of passive-aggression and victimhood. Vernon pictures a knife in his back planted there by his mother, and she constantly knows just what to say to twist that knife slowly, while maintaining an innocence in her voice that belies her intent. She's also no help for his public image, telling one news reporter that "even murderers are loved by their families you know."
The author's depiction of the town of Martirio is a scathing one, and perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the book to many reviewers. Vernon's mom has a circle of friends who are women without husbands, and they spend their days full of gossip and sniping in an attempt to adjust their place in the group's pecking order. The center of life in the town is the Bar-B-Chew Barn and every conversation with his mother's best friend revolves around food. One woman even puts her garbage out four days early so everyone can see the labels on the boxes and gift bags from her recent purchases. The townspeople don't seem devastated by the school massacre, at least from Vernon's perspective, but dwell in self-congratulatory pity and look for ways to profit from it.
Into this scenario enters a television reporter named Eulalio Ledesma. He at first befriends Vernon, then betrays him. He seduces the different women in town, usually with the promise of some TV exposure and exposes every facet of Vernon's life that can be used against him. He's the constant personification of evil in the novel, working to thwart Vernon at every turn for his own aggrandizement.
Vernon is at a loss. Nobody will let him tell his story, and everything he does, or has ever done works against him. Joints in his pocket, pornography in his room, and evidence of masturbation all point to his lack of morals which further solidifies the town's conviction that he's a murderer. The jailer taunts him, a psychiatrist attempts to abuse him, his lawyer can barely speak English, and the media want to convict him, all in the name of ratings and money. Vernon figures his only way out is to run to Mexico, but he has no money to do it.
Vernon Little takes us on a tour of his world, one that is confusing and contradictory. As much pain as he seems to suffer from his mother, he obviously loves her and wants to take care of her. He's stuck with the normal adolescent misunderstanding of the world, and when the world turns against him, it makes even less sense to him. He's a keen observer of the world, though, and much of the fun in this novel comes from Vernon's take on life. His likes the old country music of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson because "you just know they woke up plenty of times on a wooden floor somewhere, with ninety flavors of trouble riding on their ass." He describes the unattractive qualities of the local teenage slut when the boys saw her naked, "It cured us of any horniness we might've had." He notices the constant half-smile and false laughs of the attorneys and wondered if they were born to the profession. "Maybe they let a hooshy laugh slip when they were babies, and their folks said, 'Look, honey, an attorney.'"
Vernon God Little has several flaws. It's uneven at times with flashes of brilliance followed by pages of listless life in Martirio. At times Vernon's speech takes on a quality way above any 15-year old, let alone Vernon. For the most part, though, the book moves at a good clip and Vernon is an enjoyable tour guide of his life, even if his life is one you'd rather he not lead. DBC Pierre has captured the essence of the troubled adolescent, and shown us his soul. Rooting for Vernon becomes like rooting for a perennial loser as every turn of events seems to conspire against him, and Vernon lacks the intelligence and maturity to find his own way.
If you're offended by what this book may say about life in Texas or America, then don't read this book. If you're offended by a foul-mouthed boy whose morals are questionable at times, then don't read this book. Vernon God Little is profane and has a mean streak that runs through it. DBC Pierre takes it over the top at times, but with calculated effect that pans out in the long run. This novel is also touching, poignant, irritating, exasperating, and laugh-out loud funny. Critics often take an author to task for not being willing to take risks. DBC Pierre took risks in spades in Vernon God Little and if you're strong enough to take them with him, then this book is one you should read. Like any good satire, he's highlighted truths hidden behind the facade of everyday life. As Vernon goes in search of these truths to understand his life, we too can learn something from him. Take a chance with Vernon Little and you just might be surprised at what you find.
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