BY NICO VREELAND
Drop everything and read Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre, now. See other entries in this series here.
DBC Pierre is a Mexican author from Australia; his parents are English and he grew up largely in Texas. He was a cartoonist and a drug addict for a while, then he became an award-winning novelist on the first try. He’s not so easy to categorize, and neither is his work.
Pierre’s debut novel, Vernon God Little, won the Booker when he was 42. In it, our hero and narrator is Vernon Little, an awkward teenager in the small town of Martirio, Texas. Vernon’s voice is a mix of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye and Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces. In other words, funny, quirky, cutting, perceptive, and with a realistic hillbilly twang.
Before the novel begins, Vernon’s best friend, Jesus Navarro, opened fire in the middle of the high school and killed many people before turning the gun on himself. Since Jesus is gone, the town wants someone else to blame, and they settle on Vernon.
Those previous two paragraphs don’t seem to work too well together. But Pierre somehow pulls it off and Vernon God Little is the funniest book about a school shooting that you’ll ever read.
Pierre not only succeeds with that difficult premise, he also doesn’t cheat you on either the humor or the grittiness and emotional complexity. Vernon has to deal with abject betrayal from all sides, and his one true friend is not only dead, but the cause of all his problems.
The story itself is full of thrills, injustice, and compelling drama. Inside that framework, Vernon’s unique voice is the engine that makes the novel go. Here’s an example, from a passage in which Vernon discusses his dead friend, Jesus:
[Jesus] needed a different role model, but nobody was there from him. Our teacher Mr. Nuckles spent all kinds of time with him after school, but I ain’t sure ole powder-puff Nuckles and his circus of fancy words really count. I mean, the guy’s over thirty, and you just know he sits down to piss.
And here’s a passage in which Vernon describes himself, and Pierre manages to make him simple and slightly nonsensical, but poetic, too, and still believable as a redneck teenager:
You don’t know how bad I want to be Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ram her fucken gun up her ass, and run away with a panty model. But just look at me: clump of lawless brown hair, the eyelashes of a camel. Big ole puppy-dog features like God made me through a fucken magnifying glass. You know right away my movie’s the one where I puke on my legs, and they send a nurse to interview me instead.
Usually with a book that’s as dependent on style and voice as this one, I’d tell you to go read the first chapter in the bookstore, and judge whether you love the style or hate it. Vernon God Little is different, though. You might not like it for several dozen pages, and I don’t think you can get into it in just the first chapter or two. It takes at least a few chapters to acclimate to the premise alone.
As the saying goes, great books teach you how to read them, and this is one of those books. It’s ambitious and audacious, precise, well-executed, funny, and full of humanity. All those buzzwords that publishers use to describe their crappy books? This is the novel that they actually apply to.
Further reading: Since Vernon God Little, Pierre has published Ludmila’s Broken English, an underappreciated novel in the Gary Shteyngart vein, i.e. a funny, touching story about Russian immigrants. Pierre also has a third novel, Lights Out in Wonderland, coming out… soon, hopefully this year. He previewed it almost 18 months ago, but there’s still no firm word of its release. Fingers crossed.