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.
But, boy, does Pierre lay into the silliness of kids who love Nikes and oversized middle-aged women who feast on oversized portions at the "Bar-B-Chew Barn." Yeah, "Barn." Those Texans are like animals at the trough with their supersized combo meals. A defensible view, perhaps, but as one disconnected riff revisited every few pages, it's hardly the stuff of first-rate cultural satire, whatever the Booker judges might believe. Moreover, from fast food to pop music to television, VGL abounds in pop culture references that will seem sorely dated by the time the 2008 Booker Prize is awarded.
Another target for the book's taunting hostility is the media, that amorphous, ubiquitous whipping boy of every critic too lazy to find a real subject. Lally, a charlatan journalist, parlays the school shooting into a major cable news career. To pull off this coup, however, he must conceal his identity and trick everyone in town into believing he's not a freeloading con man who used all the money his poor blind mother had to finance his charade. (Yes, he does sound a lot like DBC Pierre.) Fortunately for Lally, everyone in town is a complete idiot. And, being Americans, they all imagine themselves the heroes, not of their own stories like David Copperfield, but of their own made-for-TV movies, and so they are eager to remain on his good side.
And yet, Pierre finds central casting and offensive, bogus Hollywood tropes very useful in bringing his own story to a close. If white Americans are dumb and fat, well then Mexicans--authentic Mexicans, anyway, who still live in Mexico, poor but happy, drunk on cervezas, with muchos niños--are the antidote to Gringo neurosis. (The authentic brown ones, however, are also vulnerable to neurosis once they emigrate north.) And black Americans, they're so soulful and wise, much more in touch with the true things in life. Indeed, with the book's one black character, Pierre passes off a racial caricature every bit as lazy and shallow as his cracker Texans: "Because you spent all these years tryin to figure things out," says the canny, old negro, "and in figurin them out you got tangled up worse'n before."
Don't get me started on the clichés ("It's hot as hell," in the book's first sentence; "Life flashes before my eyes," at the beginning of an important flashback chapter) or the lingo. VGL's American dialect is clearly the bastard child of expat badmouthing and off-key literary striving. To note just one instance, the insightful and usually above-average intelligent Vernon refers many times to life lessons as "learnings." This illiteratism is plainly inconsistent with the character's vocabulary, however not with the kind of thing you'd find on "The Beverly Hillbillies."
VGL's biggest bogus trope, however, comes in answer to the question of why Vernon's friend Jesus killed all those kids at school. "His lust for any speck of power in life," Vernon remarks, was "scary at times. He ain't a sporting hero, or a brain. More devastatingly, he can't afford new Brands. Licensed avenues of righteousness are out of his reach, see?" Ah yes, the ineffable madness and evil that erupts in those unclassifiable catastrophes like Columbine should be laid at the feet of the adolescent, typically American striving for new sneakers.
This is what passes for high literary achievement in the land of Shakespeare right now.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.