Vernon God Little
DBC Pierre, 2003
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Winner, 2003 Booker Prize; Whitbread Award
When sixteen kids are shot on high school grounds, everyone looks for someone to blame. Meet Vernon Little, under arrest at the sheriff's office, a teenager wearing nothing but yesterday's underwear and his prized logo sneakers. Moments after the shooter, his best buddy, turns the gun on himself, Vernon is pinned as an accomplice.
Out for revenge are the townspeople, the cable news networks, and Deputy Vaine Curie, a woman whose zeal for the Pritikin die is eclipsed only by her appetite for barbecued ribs from the Bar-B-Chew Barn. So Vernon does what any red-blooded American teenager would do; he takes off for Mexico.
Vernon God Little is a provocatively satirical, riotously funny look at violence, materialism, and the American media. (From the publisher.)
• Alias—Peter Warren Finlay
• Education—Edron Academy (Mexico City)
• Awards—Booker Prize; Whitbread First Novel Award;
Bollinger Everyman Woodhouse Award;
• Currently—lives in Ireland, UK
DBC Pierre was raised in Mexico between the ages of 7 and 23, although he has also traveled extensively. He lived a very privileged life in the milieu of that 2 percent of Mexico that holds the country's wealth and spent much time in the USA. Despite a very unrealistic, or "fairy-tale" childhood, he found himself more in tune as a child with the other 98 percent of Mexicans, and increasingly escaped home to run with the street crowd. When, at 16, his father fell gravely ill, he was largely entrusted with the family home, its cars and staff, and without recourse to counsel or reason, in his grief embarked upon a life of blithe self-destruction, alongside another half dozen junior rakes. Only two of them survived their twenties, and then only just:
Mexico, with its contrasts, its crushing poverty and sparkling wealth, its institutionalised corruption and cultural wisdom, its love of life and its embracing of death, undoubtedly set me on a path toward the deep end, philosophically and emotionally speaking. A fast and careless life had put me in tune with the common man, for whom a throw of the dice would mean life or death.
When, as a teenager, I set out for Texas to bring cars over the border, I saw that the same divides applied to the richest country on earth. Truest kinship was found in a group of homeless derelicts who camped under a bridge beside where I used to stay. It is in their broken-down lives that the seeds for Vernon were planted.
DBC Pierre has worked as a designer and cartoonist and currently lives in Ireland. Vernon God Little, his first novel, was awarded the 2003 the Booker Prize, Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Bollinger Everyman Woodhouse Award.
• Pierre's true-life journey from debt-ridden drug addict to Booker Prize winner has been a stranger-than-fiction ride. He told the (London) Guardian, "For nine years I was in a drug haze, on a rampage of cocaine, heroin, anything I could get. I am not proud of what I have done and I now want to put it right."
• During his dark years of gambling and drug addiction, he once even sold the house of his best friend—and stole the proceeds.
• In addition, he ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt by taking part in a scheme to find Montezuma's gold in Mexico.
• He has said that the £50,000 check awarded with the Booker Prize would go about one-third of the way to settling his outstanding debts.
• Pierre landed a publishing deal for his first novel one hour before the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September, 11, 2001. "Ever since, I feel like there's some dark destiny swirling around the book," he said. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble, courtesy of Faber and Faber Ltd.)
Startling and excellent....Like the best satires, it makes you feel faintly guilty for laughing, which intensifies the pleasure of reading. It also keeps you hooked....Vernon himself is a brilliant comic creation.
Carrie O'Grady - Guardian (UK)
While British critics enthusiastically compared Vernon to classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, the book actually reads more like Beavis and Butt-head 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.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times
[A] dangerous, smart, ridiculous and very funny first novel.... dark, satirical prose, suffused with the language of youth culture.... The writing is simply terrific.... 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 - New York Times Book Review
If Huckleberry Finn were set on the Mexican-American border and written by the creators of South Park, it might read something like this.
San Francisco Chronicle
An unexpectedly moving first novel ... Raucous and brooding, coarse and lyric, corrosive and sentimental in about equal measure.
Joyce Carol Oates - The New Yorker
[H]is real triumph lies in Pierre's creation of Vernon, a mouthpiece for today's disaffected teenagers....[I]n his credible articulation of Vernon's existential angst Pierre has created an invigorating heir to Holden Caulfield.
Scabrously funny....[I]n Vernon Little, Pierre has channeled the most afflicted and endearing hero since Rushmore's Max Fischer.
Pierre takes a freewheeling, irreverent look at teenage Sturm und Drang in his erratic, sometimes darkly comic debut novel about a Texas boy running from the law in the wake of a gory school shooting. Vernon Gregory Little is the 15-year-old protagonist, a nasty, sarcastic teenager accused of being an accessory to the murders committed by his friend Jesus Navarro in tiny Martirio, "the barbecue sauce capital of Texas." Vernon manages to make bail and avoid the media horde that descends on the town after the killings, but he's unable to get to the other gun—his father's—which he knows will tie him to the crime, despite his innocence. His flight path takes him first to Houston, where he unsuccessfully tries to hook up with gorgeous former schoolmate Taylor Figueroa; the crafty beauty, promised a media job by the evil Lally, who's also duped Vernon's mom, follows him to Mexico and efficiently betrays him. Most of the plotting feels like an excuse for Vernon's endless, sharply snide riffs on his small town and the unique excesses of America that helped spawn the killings. Unfortunately, Vernon's voice grows tiresome, his excesses make him rather unlikable and the over-the-top, gross-out humor is hit-or-miss. Pierre's wild energy offers entertaining satire as well as cringe-provoking scenes, and though he can write with incisive wit, this is a bumpy ride..
Published to critical acclaim in England, this first novel is a satirical look at contemporary America viewed through the eyes of Vernon Little, a 15-year-old who is the sole survivor of a high school massacre. Vernon's best friend, Jesus Navarro, was the shooter; but since Jesus is dead, the town makes Vernon their scapegoat. Pierre, whose real name is Peter Finlay and who occasionally visited Texas while growing up in Mexico, paints a black picture of a place where a boy can be executed before he is old enough to buy a drink legally, where a mother is more concerned about getting a new refrigerator than her innocent son's having been accused of mass murder. The stereotypes are broad: poor Mexicans are noble; white Texans are idiots; women are mindless, materialistic gossips; and convicted murderers are more humane than people outside. America may have difficulty finding the humor in this novel, but equally troubling is the inauthenticity of the narrative voice. Purchase only for libraries with sophisticated readers, far away from Texas. —Andrea Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS
A schoolyard massacre, a teenager on the lam, gross-out humor, and jabs at the media. Two things you should know at the outset. First, the narrative voice of 15-year-old Vernon Little overwhelms everything else. Second, the story is shaped like a doughnut. We know that one summer Tuesday in the oil town of Martirio in central Texas there occurred a Columbine-style massacre, and we know the identity of the shooter, but the context of the killings is withheld until near the end: that's the hole in the doughnut. The delayed revelation is pointless and without suspense; what happened is that Jesus Navarro, a Mexican kid and Vernon's buddy, goaded unendurably by his classmates, mowed down 16 of them before killing himself. Vernon is being held as a possible accessory to murder, though we know our boy is innocent. In his loud whine, he tells us about his Mom, his Mom's friends, his obsession (panties), and his predicament (no control over his bowels). His identity is filtered through favorite words ("slime," "cream pie," "fucken"), which capture a teenager's self-absorption, but nothing more: there is no vision of his world. He escapes to Mexico only to be entrapped by the gorgeous Taylor, a high-school acquaintance who's working hand-in-glove with Lally, a sinister con man who has already tricked Vern's Mom. Flown back to Houston, Vern stands accused of 34 murders; his TV image is so familiar that viewers even connect him to others (the "suggestibility" factor). Meanwhile, Lally has set up his own Reality TV, filming Death Row inmates and having viewers decide the order of their executions. Vern is convicted, then pardoned; what saves him are his own dried turds, found miles from the crime scene ("Stool's Out!" says Time). Humor and mass murder make for strange bedfellows, and first-timer Pierre fails to find the tone that might harmonize them.
(Below are two sets of questions—from the publisher and from a reader and LitLovers visitor.)
1. How does Vernon”s colloquial narrative voice help to develop him as a character? Does it ring true to you as the everyday speech of a young Texan? Do you "hear" Vernon speaking as you read? Is his voice different from the way characters in the book speak to one another? How does it change over the course of the novel?
2. How does the lack of male figures in Vernon”s home life affect him? How does Lally”s arrival change the dynamic of the household? How does Lally use his maleness to manipulate the situation, not just with Vernon”s mother and her friends, but with Vernon himself?
3. What is represented by the "knife" that Vernon refers to throughout the book, starting on p. 7: "it”s like [his mother] planted a knife in my back when I was born, and every fucken noise she makes just gives it a turn"? Later, he explains that parents "take every word in the fucken universe, and index it back to your knife . . . parents succeed by managing the database of your dumbness and your slime, ready for combat." (41) Do we all have "knives"? Are they created and used by our families, or by ourselves?
4. The question of cause and effect is central to novel. What do you think is the cause of the Martirio school shooting? Can there be more than one cause of an event like this? Is the town itself partly responsible for the massacre? Are Goosens and Nuckels? What about Jesus”s classmates? If we read the "cause and effect balls" Vernon plays with obsessively in his death row cell as a metaphor, what might they tell us about these questions?
5 Vernon God Little contains elements of two classic American genres: the adolescent coming-of-age story and the road novel. Critics have mentioned the novel”s similarity to The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How would you compare Vernon God Little to these novels? What other novels (or stories, or films) did it remind you of? Do you think Pierre is consciously referring to these archetypal stories?
6. Discuss the role of consumerism in this novel. Vernon says that Jesus lacks power and status in part because "he can”t afford new Brands. Licensed avenues of righteousness are out of his reach."? (230) What does Vernon mean by "licensed avenues of righteousness?"
7. Vernon feels freer in Mexico than at home; he imagines that "there”s a kind of immune system back home, to knock off your edges, wash out the feral genes, package you up with your knife.... Down here, in another space and time, I spend a night among partners with correctly calibrated Mexican genes." (175) What is the difference Vernon is getting at here? Is he romanticizing Mexican life? What does it have, or lack, that allows him to feel free of his "knife"?
8 How does Vernon change and mature over the course of the novel? How does your attitude toward him change? Did you ever think that he had been part of the shooting?
9. Is the kind of cruelty shown by Jesus”s classmates on the day of the shooting simply a fact of adolescent life, or is it a symptom of an unhealthy society? Do teenagers have a right to be free from teasing and harassment, or are they, as Charlotte Brewster suggests, naturally subject to the tyranny of the majority of their peers? Can the social persecution of Jesus be compared to the persecution of Vernon by media-influenced public opinion?
10. What is the role of the media in Vernon God Little? Why do we never meet a real reporter, one who is not a fraud or an opportunist like Lally? How does the media spotlight shape Martirio”s reaction to the shootings? Do you think media coverage of tragedies and trials in recent years has gone too far? Has it had any positive effects?
11. What do you think of Lasalle”s final advice to Vernon (p. 258-260)? He asks Vernon, " “Where”s this God you talk about?... Just fuckin people. You stuck with the rest of us in this snake-pit of human wants, wants frustrated and calcified into needs.... Don”t come cryin to me because you got in the way of another man”s needs.”" Is this the root of Vernon”s troubles? If he had not been "too darn embarrassed to play God," (261) if he had set out from the beginning to "give the people what they want," could he have avoided the predicament he finds himself in? What do you make of the fact that Lasalle turns out to have been an axe murderer?
12. What does Vernon God Little say about America? Is it effective as a commentary on our culture? How do humor and satire work in the novel to provide a new perspective on school violence?
(Questions issued by publishers.)
1. How would you compare VGL to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Catcher in the Rye?
2. Was the narrator consistently credible? (Most of the time his words and thoughts can believably belong to a fifteen year old, naive in some ways, precocious in others. However, the occasional line seems entirely out of place. The nearest example in chapter 5, p. 44: "Leona's Eldorado sashays past the pumpjack, full of musty, dry wombs and deep, bitter wants.")
3. Did you expect a negative ending to the story, based on all the difficulties of Vernon’s life?
4. How do you understand the relationship between Vernon and his mother? Is it believable that she does not defend him or take his side?
5. What kind of portrait of the media does Lalo Ledesma depict? Is this a fair portrait, or a stereotype?
6. Michiko Kakutani mentioned in her New York Times review that the events "ricochet mechanically between the predictable and the preposterous," resulting in a less than “convincing or compelling story." Was the story convincing to you?
7. Does this novel winning the Booker suggest a perpetuation of the "Ugly American" in the minds of Britons?
8. We’ve [Robyn's book club] now read The Line of Beauty, The Famished Road, The Bone People, and now VGL—all with a focus on young males. Can we compare and contrast the characters of Nick, Azaro, Simon/Claire, and Vernon?
(Questions courtesy of Robyn Rubenstein who prepared these questions on behalf of her book club in New York City—a club devoted to working its way through the Man Booker Prize books. Thanks Robyn.)
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