So hey, here’s a novel that’s about school shootings, the presumption of innocence, the weird pull of adulthood and sex, the prison system, Mexico, reality TV, hucksters and the corrosive effect of media-driven groupthink on the execution of justice and, well, executions, and whether God really exists. Sounds pretty weighty, right?
Well, if you’re talking about D.B.C. Pierre’s debut (and award winning) novel Vernon God Little, then the answer is sorta. It is indeed about all those things, all Big Topics and worthy of some navel-gazing time. But it’s more importantly a portrait of what it is to be a teenager that knows he’s living in the arsehole of the world, and is wise enough to have a fairly accurate sense of just how dumb he is. He’s in the frame for a school shooting, and in the sights of the sharks that follow such tragedy looking for the paydays of their wake. And though it’s funny, there’s enough darkness and thought provocation to ensure that though you’ll be amused, you’ll be equally disturbed.
A lot of reviews of this work rope in the ghost of John Kennedy Toole, and I have to agree: Vernon Gregory Little is pretty much the most entertaining obnoxious pissant since A Conspiracy of Dunces‘ Ignatius J. Reilly. The misanthropy of the teenager is accurately pinned here, and though Vernon lacks the book learning to make a proper Ignatius, he’s also more room for improvement. This is where the book differs, say, from Catcher in the Rye, another tome to which Vernon God Little is sometimes compared. There’s always – despite the grim cast of mind – room for hope.
In terms of narrative voice, Pierre’s writing brings to mind the down-at-heel Faulkner knockoff Nick Cave employed for his first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel. It’s wired, electric, and slightly unbelievable. But that’s OK, because we’re really dealing with a work of satire – deadly serious satire, but serious nonetheless. I don’t particularly want to spoil some of the concerns raised later in the book – and it’s later in the more judicial scenes where the similarity with Cave peaks – but there’s a studied roughness to the prose that appeals. It’s the thoughts of a dimwit, but check out the carving on ’em.
When the rubbing of her thighs has faded, I crane my nostrils for any vague comfort; a whiff of warm toast, a spearmint breath. But all I whiff, over the sweat and the barbecue sauce, is school—the kind of pulse bullyboys give off when they spot a quiet one, a wordsmith, in a corner. The scent of lumber being cut for a fucken cross.
Some reader reviews of the text seem to think that the content is facile, or that the characterisation is trite and unformed, but I’d suggest they’re wrong: teenage boys are trite and unformed. Adolescence is the crucible where adulthood is formed, that weird uncanny valley where people look a bit like adults, but just off enough to make one jump back with raw-nerve discomfort. That’s why there’s fixation on boners, on panty-sniffing, that’s why running away and not being able to speak truth to power – lest one receive a clip ’round the ear – are such key concerns here. Teenagers are, despite their assumptions about someday inheriting the earth, the underdogs, and there’s nobody more under than Vernon: the friend of a troubled boy, the scapegoat for a mass murder, and someone easily shoved out of his mother’s affections when a fridge-promising shyster greases along.
This book is an excellent portrait of a snot-nosed, jizz-stained loser – that’s the most visible function it serves. But if you look a little deeper, there’s a lot to be said about how humans treat each other, in the confines of the family and in the strictures of the State. It’s unsurprising that Werner Herzog is interested in making a film of the work; with morality tattooed into the novel, it is a deeply appealing circus.