Monday, April 30, 2007

Vernon God Little

A review of DBC Pierre’s novel Vernon God Little; appeared in the Toronto Star in 2003.

Here’s a fresh case study to please all those no-more-borders types. A debut novel set in smalltown U.S.A., written by an Australian-born, Mexican-raised nomad, captures a cult following in Britain and goes on to win the U.K.’s biggest literary award.

The novel in question is Vernon God Little, which took the Man Booker Prize this week and secured the future of its author, DBC Pierre (the nom de plume of Peter Finlay, a recovered drug addict and sometime con man). It’s a black comedy about the aftermath of a high-school mass murder in a dismal Texas town. Vernon, the titular 15-year-old narrator, is wrongly pegged as a killer and spends most of the novel dodging incompetent cops, a sinister psychiatrist, and a venal con man posing as a reporter.

In theory, the Booker win should be cause for celebration. Here’s a tony literary award going to a contemporary satire that’s giddy with grime. Finally, worthwhile funny stuff beats out phony gravitas. That theory, however, doesn’t survive an actual reading of Vernon God Little, which is ham-fisted as a satire and simply clumsy as a narrative. Either the Booker judges are crazy, or I am.

It may be that the novel’s success says more about the current state of international relations than its own literary merit. It’s hard to suppress the suspicion that this book has resonated with British readers mainly by flattering their laziest prejudices about George W. Bush’s home state. Amid the customer reviews on the Amazon U.K. web site, one admirer writes, “My main concern is that the crystal clear observation will never meet its ultimate target audience. Read this book and imagine it ending up on the shelves in Texas.” John Carey, the chairman of the Booker jury, called the novel “a coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm but also our fascination with modern America.”

And what does Vernon God Little tell us about Modern America? Well, that people in Texas are overweight and barbecue-gorged. That they’re materialistic and shallow, constantly jostling for status. That they’re easily gulled by the media, and will do just about anything to be on TV.

As a satirist, Pierre is not exactly stalking dangerous game here.

The action takes place in the fictional Texas town of Martirio (which can translate as either “martyrdom” or “torture”). A troubled teen, Jesus Navarro, has just shot and killed 16 of his fellow high-school students, as well as himself. The community’s revenge-hungry gaze quickly falls on Vernon, one of the killer’s only friends, who finds himself under suspicion as an accomplice. Vernon knew nothing of the murders and was nowhere near the crime scene – he suffers from a bowel disorder, and was defecating in a far-away field as the bodies fell. But in that field he’s also stashed a gun that, for reasons of his own, he wants to keep out of the hands of the authorities.

Vernon’s hapless deceptions backfire, of course, and soon enough no one in town believes him innocent, not even his own widowed mother. (Her refrain that “even murderers are loved by their families” is one of the book’s funnier bits.) Things get worse with the arrival of Eulalio Ledesma, a sociopathic drifter-grifter with plans to parlay the Martirio massacre into a TV career. Ledesma casts Vernon as a villain, tightening the noose of public opinion around his neck, and eventually our hero flees to Mexico, dreaming all the while of the panties of his rich-girl crush, Taylor Figueroa.

To his credit, Pierre understands the energizing effect that frustration can have on a reader. A martyr awaiting vindication and a villain in need of comeuppance never fail to liven up a story. But that energy can’t compensate for the paucity of vision here – or for the technical limitations, such as a half-hearted approach to plotting. Vernon’s bowel problem (“that inconvenience,” as his mother calls it) sets up the entire novel, but never once plagues him again throughout all his misadventures. And there’s little pleasure to be had in the story’s various twists: rather than startling or thrilling, the plot machinations seem simply slack and sluggish.

The novel’s satirical sensibilities are equally half-formed. Some promising gags, like the strange profusion of widows in Martirio, are mystifyingly underdeveloped, while more obvious jokes are mercilessly overworked. For readers looking to laugh bitterly at Modern America, the short stories of George Saunders (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Pastoralia) offer quirkier, more imaginative situations and wittier delivery – and Saunders also manages to connect with some real emotions.

Pierre tries to do the same in Vernon God Little with a running theme on the complicated bonds of family, but these efforts are hobbled by the failure of the novel’s narrative voice. First-person narration from a guileless and unsophisticated teenager need not sacrifice readability or artistry, but it should carry a sense of immediacy and plausibility. (A superb recent example is Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone.) Vernon’s voice, though, is never a believable one. It’s duly peppered with “ole” and “fucken” for local colour, but it’s also jangled by Pierre’s frequent reminders that there’s actually a Real Writer in charge here. Would a typical 15-year-old ever produce, in conversation, such a laboured construction as “She tugs my elbow. The force of it recommends the floor to my feet”?

Whether these affectations are entertaining in their own right is debatable. Vernon God Little has been praised for its energetic style, but for me, the writing holds little music. Here’s a typical riff: “Picture a wall of cancer clouds sliced clean across the border, cut with the Blade of God, because Mexican Fate won’t tolerate any of that shit down here. Intimate sounds spike the tide of travelers, the new brothers and sisters who spin me south down the highway like a pebble, helpless but brave to the wave.”

If that prose crackles for you, then call me crazy and enjoy the read.