God knows I tried my best to learn the ways of this world, even had inklings we could be glorious; but after all that’s happened, the inkles ain’t easy anymore. I mean – what kind of fucken life is this ?

Vernon God Little (2003) is a novel by DBC Pierre. It was his debut novel and won the Booker Prize in 2003. It has twice been adapted as a stage play

“A 21st-century comedy in the presence of death”.

The Story

If I were to summarise DBC Pierre’s debut novel, I would say it’s about a teen who witnesses a school shooting in Texas (we’ve seen loads of this) and because he’s an absolute idiot, nearly gets the electric chair as most of the evidence is stacked against him. This was supposed to be a comedy, yet I found myself wondering as I was reading whether you’d have to be high to appreciate the humor.

Vernon is cynical, does not let go of the word “fucken” even when talking about Christian matters (and Texas is a very Christian state) and mentions female body parts and copulation every two sentences or so.

I heard the voice of Jesus last night. If at first you don’t succeed, he said, get wasted off your fucken ass.”

I’m not a prude but when the language interferes with the story, I get an issue.

And then I realised, there was little of a story to be told, so language had to be hyped up to “how people speak in real life”. Maybe it was all a very neatly disguised satire about the rapacity of television news, and the ineffectual justice system when the thing that saves Vernon from the electric chair (spoiler) is a faeces-smeared paper that proves that Vernon was taking a poo on the school property when the shooter was going in and killing 42 people. You also get to witness first hand a group of “ladies” talking almost daily – either about each other or about everybody else. One of them is Doris, Vernon’s mother – who shacks up for a short period with a romantic scammer who takes all her money and Vernon’s savings.

Vernon is innocent: “Everyone knows Jesus is to blame.” Jesus? No, not the one you’re thinking of: Jesus Navarro, a Mexican boy wearing silk panties under his jeans, was the one holding the gun. But Vernon does little to alleviate the grave accusations when he tries his best to flee to Mexico and a SWAT team (private SWAT team created by an exploitative reporter) finds him after he gets betrayed and he is martyred. And all his mother can do is eat the Barn’s Chik’n’Mix and pray for a side-by-side fridge (special edition, almond shade).


My personal two cents is that the critics are wrong on this one. The book is funny, but not THAT funny.

Then Brad Pritchard appears at my window; nose to the sky, finger pointed at his shoes.
‘Air Maxes,’ he states. ‘New.’
He stands with his eyes shut, waiting for me to blow a fucken kiss, or break down weeping or something. Asshole.
I lift my leg to the window.
‘Jordan New Jacks.’
He squints momentarily before pointing at my Nikes. his. ‘NEW.’
I point at his, ‘Price of a Barbie Camper.’ Then at mine, ‘Price of a medium-range corporate jet.’
‘Are not.’
‘Are fucken too.’
‘Enjoy jail.’

Vernon wasn’t there when the massacre happened: his teacher sent him on an errand, and his loose bowels make for an embarrassing alibi — so embarrassing he (ridiculously) refuses to mention it for far too long. And there’s also a missing firearm, with some fingerprints on it ….. What actually happened that fateful day is barely mentioned for much of the book; unfortunately, it’s not because of the sheer, overwhelming horror of it.

The massacre is just another thing to deal with, and the everyday routines aren’t really upset by it. The comments on the mindset of a small town caught in a post-school shooting frenzy are pretty spot on – as everyone has a thought about it and the Sheriff Department is pretty useless.

See Hysteriaville here? Science says there must be ten squillion brain cells in this town, but if you so much as belch before your twenty-first birthday they can only form two thoughts between them: you’re fucken pregnant , or you’re on drugs . Fuck it, I’m outta here. Life’s simple when I’m angry. I know just what to do, and I fucken do it. Underpants my fucken ass.
I’ll tell you a learning: knife-turners like my ole lady actually spend their waking hours connecting shit into a humongous web, just like spiders. It’s true. They take every word in the fucken universe, and index it back to your knife. In the end it doesn’t matter what words you say, you feel it on your blade. Like, ‘Wow, see that car?’ ‘ Well it’s the same blue as that jacket you threw up on at the Christmas show, remember? ’

Even his best friends (if he has any) are pretty quick to make a move on Vernon – either to ask for information or like in the case of Ella, to ask for beer or else tell everyone in town he touched her.

A learning grows in me like a tumor. It’s about the way different needy people find the quickest route to get some attention in their miserable fucken lives. The fucken oozing nakedness, the despair of being such a vulnerable egg-sac of a critter, like, a so-called human being, just sickens me sometimes, especially right now. The Human Condition, Mom calls it. Watch out for that fucker.

Vernon is accused, and Vernon makes a run for it. He makes it to Mexico, but he’s hauled back and put on trial — not only for the high-school massacre, but for every murder that happened in Texas while he was on the loose, thirty-four counts in all. The only thing that made sense to me was the lawyer’s opening speech:

‘What I propose to show you during the course of this trial, ladies and gentlemen, is the breadth of human suggestibility. Media arrive at the scene of every murder, with a picture of one suspect alone: the defendant. And not just any media. Media under the direct employ of the man who most stands to gain from these proceedings. A man who has built an industry – no, a virtual empire – on the relentless persecution of this single, hapless youngster.

Vernon God Little is apparently meant to be a satire. The media is certainly a target, especially in the outlandish concluding section where media-coverage exceeds even the barely limited bounds currently in force in America. Modern small town middle-America is presumably also a target, but Pierre is on even less sure footing there, his descriptions of the alternately naïve and conniving ways of the locals too broadly exaggerated to do much more than annoy. Possibly modern-style American crime and punishment (and the much-loved Texan death penalty), and specifically a need for retribution and closure, are also meant to be skewered here; if so, Pierre again misses his mark.

Pierre gets a few things down right: the kids’ relationships, for one, and especially the teenage relationships with some of the marginal adults are well handled (and go a long way to explain how this whole mess could happen). Vernon’s confused adolescent lust and his girl trouble, with Ella and Taylor Figueroa, is for the most part also well handled.
Perhaps the major problem with the book is Vernon’s voice, which never fully convinces. Pierre goes a long way in undermining it at the very outset, in the first paragraph, as he describes Mrs Lechuga:

Hard to tell if she quivered, or if moths and porchlight through the window ruffled her skin like funeral satin in a gale.

Poetic and evocative, yes, but not believable from a fifteen year-old.

All in all, a solid 2/5. Would not read again.

PS: The rambling reminded me a little of John Dies at the End * David Wong