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Brand Yankees

The prestigious Booker Prize goes to Peter Finlay's silly, but anti-American, "Vernon God Little."

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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WEEKS BEFORE British flash mobs were quickening to the rings of their cell phones, barking furiously in the steps of President George W. Bush as he visited London, the Booker Prize committee sent its own signal regarding the United States of America. But instead of a thousand shouts and protest signs, the judges condensed their message into three words: "Vernon God Little."

That's the title of this year's Booker Prize winner, written by DBC Pierre, the nom de plume of Australian writer Peter Finlay. His bio says he "divided most of the first twenty-three years of his life between Texas and Mexico City." But Finlay's story is far more colorful than that. A confessed former drug addict and con-man, the 42-year-old first-time novelist tells the British media he's using his prize of £50,000 to pay back his old friend Robert Lenton, an American painter Finlay knew in Spain, whose home Finlay sold only to keep the money for himself. Standing in line behind Lenton are many other friends and suckers awaiting their turn.

Yet the author's own checkered past in no way inhibited him from occupying the proverbial high horse as he penned his very own hate letter to America. The chairman of the Booker judges says of VGL: "a coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm and fascination with modern America." Have the right enemies, the lesson goes, and little else will matter.

Set in Texas, VGL is the story of an American teenager whose best friend took a gun to school and shot up 15 classmates and then killed himself. Beginning two weeks after the Columbine-like tragedy, the story follows the town's search for a convenient scapegoat, which is where the title character steps into what a writing teacher might call his central complication.

But while most of the book's entertainment value is found in its tall-tale spoof on American justice--for realism, something on the order of a "Naked Gun" movie--it's no exaggeration to say the book has been singled out for its "dangerous relevance," as blurbist Jonathan Lethem, author of "Fortress of Solitude," puts it on the book's back cover. But it is in the relevance department that the novel fails, utterly, stupidly, and in such a way that could only be overlooked by the politically blindered.

Problem number one is that the first-person, vulgarity-strained voice of Vernon, fails to accomplish a convincing representation of a Texas youth of the video-game-playing, brand-name-obsessed, malcontent variety. Curses multiply, presumably for the sake of verisimilitude, while opportunities for poetic flourish are never bypassed. The same voice is expected to carry opposite tunes, never discovering a proper synthesis. Sizing up the challenge of going on television to defend himself, Vernon says: "You have to quiver on TV, it's a fucken law of nature. You have to quiver and be devastated all the time." Later, in court, describing his overweight lawyer in action, the author has gold-plated Vernon's observations so you don't forget it's a serious literary effort: "Goosen walks to the witness stand. His cheeks swish like silk bulging with cream."

Carelessness with vocal characterization (and more on that later) is matched by mindlessness in presenting the divine. Vernon does a play on his middle name Gregory throughout, his full name becoming Vernon Gridlock Little when he's jammed up, and finally Vernon God Little when he's contemplating meeting his maker . . . adding up to little more than free-association word play. The name of Vernon's late best friend, the shooter, a Mexican kid, is Jesus, whose spirit Vernon often finds flying in the wind next to him as he coasts along on his bicycle . . . to no avail. The divine is everywhere and nowhere, mentioned but always absent--absent from the story and absent from the story's meaning.

THE ONLY POINT thus developed seems to be the astonishingly shallow accusation that America is promiscuously and only superficially religious. Such wisdom can obviously serve but one master: ill-founded, anti-American self-satisfaction.

As cultural comment, Pierre's award-winning book (which, keep in mind, places him on a very exclusive shelf, next to widely hailed artists of undismissable accomplishment like Ian McEwan and J.M. Coetzee) explores not the American soul, but American footwear and fast-food chains. This is about the equivalent of describing a major league baseball game while standing in a parking garage a few blocks up from Camden Yards.