If literary awards are a barometer for how the rest of the world views America, DBC Pierre’s victory at the 2003 Man Booker Prize ceremony for his controversial first novel Vernon God Little might predict a cold snap in our diplomatic relationships with England. Judging chair professor John Carey, one of England’s most esteemed critics, praised the book as “a coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm and fascination with modern America.”
Carey was putting matters mildly. Vernon God Little might be the most vicious satire of American life to come out of England since Martin Amis’ 1985 Money. Set in a small Texas town, where residents’ dependence on fried food and television has transformed them into oversize lemmings, the book puts an astute, needling finger on the scary collusion between entertainment and law enforcement in American culture.
At the center of this whirlwind is Vernon Little, a foul-mouthed 15 year old with precocious powers of observation. As the tale opens, Vernon—or Vern, as he is called—has been hauled into the police station in his hometown of Martirio, Texas. His best friend, Jesus, brought a rifle to school and took down nearly 20 of his classmates before turning the gun on himself. Vernon, the police think, must have been an accomplice.
Before the interview is over, however Vernon sneaks out of jail with his aunt, who is outraged her nephew has not been fed. Thus begins this novel’s addictively weird series of escapes and captures. Over the next 250 pages, Pierre takes us on a picaresque journey from Martirio to San Antonio to Houston, all the way down to Acapulco.
If Huckleberry Finn were set on the border and written by the creators of South Park, it might read something like this. Martirio is a town painted with cartoonish stereotypes and scatological broad strokes. Nearly every denizen is overweight to the point of obesity; as Vernon describes it, “this is a neighborhood where underwear sags low.” It’s hard to blame Vernon for wanting to leave.
Although the sheer forward motion of this journey compels a reader to keep turning the pages, it is Vernon Little who makes it hard to get off this crazy thing. Brash and cynical yet vulnerable, he is a true outsider horribly neglected by his family, who become so wrapped up in the media coverage of his trial that they forget to protect him. In the process of ranting about his town and family, Vernon beautifully mangles language into his own crude idiom. He complains about becoming a “skate-goat” for a crime he did not commit, and worries that the “paradime” shift that a sketchy TV producer promises him will actually put him behind bars. Mexicans are “Meskins,” Timberland boots be-come “Tumbledowns.” Even funnier are the metaphors Vernon uses, most of which are too colorful to cite. Given Vernon’s obsession with bowel movements—he has a condition, let’s say—there are dozens of metaphors that begin and end with, well, the rump. In one scene, a news show about Vernon comes on and “ladies drift over [to the TV] like farts.”
Still, in spite of its linguistic derring-do, Vernon God Little is less a satire than it is a burlesque. It ignores the emotional strafing such high school massacres leave in their wake in order to make a point about the way media—and Americans susceptibility to it—warps the moral contract. Even Vernon, who actually has “waves” of sympathy for his mother and other classmates, gets carried away by his outlaw status.
What grates even more about the novel is that in order to make these points, it twists itself into a pretzel of unbelievable plotting and gross generalization. Not one character in these pages—including, eventually, Vernon God Little—earns our sympathy in the end. They are uniformly cruel and crass to one another. The redemption they achieve is ironic, a poke in the eye.
Writers are entitled to their bleakness and must have the freedom to satirize. But when they work your interest into a lather only to spit in your face, you’re entitled not to like them.