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the complete review - fiction
Vernon God Little
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- UK subtitle: a twenty-first century comedy in the presence of death
- Awarded the Man Booker Prize, 2003
- Awarded the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Writing, 2003
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C+ : uneven and unconvincing
See our review for fuller assessment.
No consensus whatsoever -- with the American critics far more critical than the British ones
From the Reviews:
- "Little speaks exclusively in terms of copulation, waste, or female body parts. If you see lots of movies, you know this is the way people speak in real life. And Vernon has seen many, many movies. Come to think of it, his constant allusions to cinema and television sound far more like those of a 42-year-old author than a 15-year-old pothead, but who gives a **** ? (...) All this generates some laughs, but as a subject for satire, the rapacity of television news is as fresh as reruns of Hard Copy. What's more disappointing, though, is the way Vernon God Little ultimately descends to the same simplistic level it rails against in American culture." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
- "A bumptious black comedy narrated by the teenage survivor of a white-trash high-school massacre, Vernon God Little has a ferocious energy and abundant wit. (...) But Pierre's characters -- with the exception of Vernon and, in the odd scene, his mother -- are such cartoons, and his plot so hectically contrived, that Vernon God Little fails as satire, even as it entertains on the level of a Tom Sharpe novel." - Sam Leith, Daily Telegraph
- "(A) startling and excellent debut, is billed as a comedy (.....) And doggone it, is it funny. The dialogue, in pure Texanese, jumps off the page (.....) The ending of Vernon God Little is too good to reveal. By the time you reach it, you are likely to be in a vulnerable state, dazed by the powerful Texas twang that vibrates through the dialogue and struck dumb by Vernon's fierce longing to escape Martirio. It's a measure of Pierre's skill and cunning that, having lulled you into his world, he boots you out of it with an explosive and extravagantly satisfying finale." - Carrie O'Grady, The Guardian
- "DBC Pierre's debut novel is funny and touching as it rain-checks contemporary America. (...) Despite a few implausible plot twists, this is a book about finding the good in yourself and in other people. Beyond the body-bags and barbecue sauce, the vicissitudes of Vernon reveal not just a rebel for the Eminem generation, but a boy of such sweetness he makes death row a respectable address." - Marianne Brace, The Independent
- "D.B.C. Pierre's novel is an engaging book, lively and sometimes scintillating. It is in some ways a remarkable first novel, and its achieved tone of adolescent desperation and rebellion suggests years of broken gestation. (Pierre is 42.) It is also a limited work, cartoonish, narrow, raucous, too often mistaking noise for vividness. (...) Readers have different thresholds for the cartoonish. Mine has a very low lintel indeed. But there's no doubt that the book is scandalously simplifying." - James Wood, London Review of Books
- "Es ist geradezu ein Sodom und Gomorrha, das DBC Pierre heraufbeschwört, und sogar fürs Genre der Satire wird das allmählich ein wenig zu viel des Verworfenen. (...) Nicht zu bestreiten ist jedenfalls, dass sich in DBC Pierres Roman ein starkes Sprachtalent zeigt." - Uwe Pralle, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "(T)he book actually reads more like Beavis and Butthead trying to do Nathanael West. It has moments of genuine horror and pathos, but for the most part it is a lumbering, mannered performance, a vigorous but unimaginative compendium of every cliché you've ever heard about America in general and Texas in particular. (...) In relating Vernon's adventures, Mr. Pierre (...) evinces a certain raw energy and an instinctive ability to orchestrate suspense. Unfortunately his characters are all crude caricatures." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "(A) dangerous, smart, ridiculous and very funny first novel (.....) Vernon (...) narrates this tale in the manner of a character created by Mark Twain and remixed by Dr. Dre (.....) The writing is simply terrific. In much the same way that noir novelists like James Ellroy seem steeped in the rhythms and textures of jazz, there is a jagged, punk-rock sensibility to Pierre's prose, absolutely his own. Plot aside -- and there is much in this novel to keep the reader turning pages -- Vernon God Little is just plain fun to read." - Sam Sifton, The New York Times Book Review
- "Vernon is a Holden Caulfield on amphetamines (...) The novel is a curious admixture of high-decibel video-game farce and interludes of sobriety during which the author’s mask slips and we find ourselves in the presence not of the hormone-tormented Vernon but of a rueful adult male contemplating "this dry residue of horror." (...) For all its energy and invention, Vernon God Little does occasionally flag. Mordant satire is uneasily matched with slapstick plot reversals, and it must be conceded that the objects of Pierre’s contempt (...) are not very original." - Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker
- "Most things about this violently satirical debut novel are remarkable and some are just inimitable. (...) Unfortunately, most of Pierre's characters are, at best, two-dimensional and it's not always clear whose side he's on, who is being satirised and for which sins. (...) Pierre could write Proulx into the ground: fierce, crazed and passionate, his first novel may not be the most balanced book to emerge out of America this year, but it must be one of the most driven." - Jonathan Heawood, The Observer
- "Set in America, Pierre's book is not just bad; it is so awful that its victory suggests there is something deeply wrong with British literary culture. To an American reader the book provokes neither amusement nor outrage, but puzzlement: are the British literati so ignorant of the US that they can think this is a competent parody ? (...) Pierre's solecisms provide accidental comedy in this tedious book" - Michael Lind, Prospect
- "(A) quite scintillating black comedy by one of the most original talents in years. (...) The plot is masterly, drawing you inexorably into the dystopian fantasy which the author is developing. (...) Simply as an indictment of American justice, Vernon God Little is chilling and hilarious. But the novel is much, much more than that. It is a showcase of superb comic writing, every sentence turned with loving care." - David Robson, Sunday Telegraph
- "Pierre's carefully balanced satirical tone teases the reader through the novel's seeming implausibility. Some of the characters are riotously funny. (...) Like many first-person narratives, Vernon God Little occasionally jars. There is a little too much repetition of the restrictive vocabulary of a cursing Texan teenager, while at other times the voice seems overly poetic. This aside, Vernon is a marvellous creation. His vibrant commentary on his family and, more widely, America is often ill-informed but always amusingly thought-provoking." - Andrew Laing, Sydney Morning Herald
- "Is this really the blackened, barbecued soul of America exposed ? A brand new confederacy of dunces unearthed ? Americans make temptingly large targets for satire these days -- what with the chronic obesity and all -- but I'll be double-dog-darned if we're quite this easy to skewer. Pierre may have come clean about his past, but Vernon God Little feels like just another con." - Lev Grossman, Time
- "It is both unfortunate and ironic that the otherwise sharp and original Pierre relies on the hackneyed and relatively thoughtless device of paedophilic pornographers as the villains of this piece. Such one-dimensional characters are all too often the standby rent-a-fiends of the exploitative media that so much of this book is an outraged cry against. That aside, this is quite a debut." - Chris Power, The Times
- "It is indeed satire, but of the broadest and bluntest kind, the kind deployed by the teenager in the schoolyard who thinks it's clever to say the f-word. Vernon Little owes a debt to Salinger's Holden Caulfield, and like Holden his voice is loud and clear -the book's greatest strength. But, like Michael Moore (who, Camille Paglia has said, gives liberalism a bad name), his targets are too soft, his weapons too coarse." - Erica Wagner, The Times
- "The novel's vision of a small-town dystopia thus participates in a finely nuanced version of the romance of the marginal. If all fiction seeks to convince you of its own paradigm -- or "Powerdime" in Vern-speak -- this one succeeds." - Nick Seddon, Times Literary Supplement
- "Pierre spends the entirety of this never-funny novel banging away at these wide targets as if they were 300-pound piñatas (...) There's nothing in particular to be made of this teeth-grindingly feeble stab at satire and virtual random-search engine of potty humor -- except, of course, that it was the 2003 recipient of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, for the best novel produced in the far-flung former British Empire. The plot is so leaden, its jokes so drearily predictable and its main characters so contemptuously rendered that it's hard not to see the selection itself as a Vernon Little-style obscene gesture directed at an America presently enjoying precious little esteem in European opinion" - Chris Lehmann, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
It's the title character in Vernon God Little who tells this story.
His name is Vernon Gregory Little, actually, with the middle (and occasionally the first) name mutating as the situation (or those confronting him) dictate.
His story is a pretty miserable one.
Vernon lives in Martirio; until recently it was "only the barbecue sauce capital of Central Texas", but suddenly the eyes of the nation are on it.
There's been a Columbine-style killing-spree at the local high school, but the killer is dead -- and "because he's dead, and they can't fucken kill him for it, they have to find a skate-goat."
And that's what Vernon is: the designated skate-goat (i.e. scapegoat), the Martirio martyr.
Vernon's lot isn't an easy one:
I'm a kid whose best friend took a gun into his mouth and blew off his hair, whose classmates are dead, who's being blamed for it all, who broke his mama's heart
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.
Life in this backwater doesn't exactly go on as normal, but there's little normality here to begin with.
The massacre is just another thing to deal with, and the everyday routines aren't really upset by it.
Perhaps this is the blinkered way a teenage mind might see thing (and all this is seen through Vernon's eyes), but it comes across as discordant.
(Vernon also seems far too unaffected by what happened, in contrast to his day-to-day concerns (of escape and survival) over most of the book.)
Vernon God Little is a five-act immorality play, with Vernon the pawn.
He's innocent -- but no one much cares.
In one of the rare witty exchanges in the book:
My ole lady bursts out, and hurries down to the road.
Vernon's home-life hasn't been idyllic -- or rather has, but merely in the twisted, rural American way author DBC Pierre imagines and attacks in this supposed satire.
As Vernon explains:
'Vernon, I love you !
Forget about before -- even murderers are loved by their families, you know ...'
'Heck, Ma, I ain't a murderer !'
'Well I know -- it's just an example.'
This is how I'm being grown up, this is my fucken struggle for learnings and glory.
A gumbo of lies, cellulite, and fucken 'Wuv'.
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.
Along the way there's a quirky cast of characters, from a deviant psychiatrist to a whole lot of Guries (as all the law enforcement officials in town seem to belong to the same extended family) to a few girls who take differing sorts of interest in the accused killer.
Central, also, is the wannabe TV journalist Eulalio 'Lally' Ledesma, who parlays the events in Martirio into a full-blown career (and he's not the only one), twisting every bit of information to further his career -- at Vernon's expense.
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.
There are some inspired touches in Vernon God Little, but it is a very odd book.
For one, it is surprisingly dull.
Vernon's adventures plod along.
Pierre effectively shows the small-town hold Martirio has in how difficult he makes it for Vernon to escape, but that makes these episodes no more interesting.
There are some decent comic touches -- a few scenes that almost come off -- and he does redeem himself somewhat in the climactic trial scenes, when the massacre is first described at some length (and when the pieces of what exactly happened finally fall into place), but then he closes the book with a poorly handled final set of media-driven twists, making for a disappointing (as presented) ending.
Almost lost in it all is also the background, of what set the stage for the massacre -- something he could have developed more fully.
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.
Or at least: this fifteen year-old.
Pierre never does get the voice down consistently, airy flights of fancy like that passage cropping up between more "fucken"-mentions than one can keep track of and more simplistic (if not realistic) rambling ("This is how I'm being grown up", etc.).
And while some of the characters (like Vernon's mom) are meant to be too dense to be believed, this makes for often stultifying dialogue.
Much of this perhaps is meant to pass as comedy; it doesn't.
The uneven pacing doesn't help either: it's a slog getting through much of the book.
There are glimmers of promise here: some good ideas, mainly, and aspects of Vernon's life that Pierre handles well.
But Vernon God Little is more failure than success.
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Vernon God Little:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Australian-born (in 1961) Peter Finlay writes under the pseudonym "D. B. C. Pierre".
His first novel, Vernon God Little won the Man Booker Prize in 2003.
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© 2003-2010 the complete review
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