Category Archives: Australian authors

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre [Bookerprize]

Vernon_god_littleThe day after I started reading Vernon God Little a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at a music festival in Las Vegas, causing multiple fatalities and injuries. It made reading this book about a (fictional) mass killing at a school inMartirio, Texas, especially thought-provoking because it opened up questions about the way in which society respond to such events.

In the aftermath of Las Vegas, the initial desire was to understand ‘What happened?” and “How could this have happened?” This was quickly replaced by questions of responsibility.  ‘Who is to blame?” and “How could they have let this happen?” asked people around the world. This need to identify the person or people responsible and bring them swiftly to account for their failings, is a response that has become all too common in a world which has in recent years experienced a multitude of calamities.

The ‘blame culture’ is very evident in Vernon God Little. Jesus Navarro,  a college student,  shot and killed 16 students at his school before turning the gun on himself. His 15-year-old friend Vernon becomes the town’s scapegoat and is almost immediately charged as an accessory to the crime. As the book begins, Vernon has been taken into custody and is being questioned by police officers who are under pressure from an angry and grieving community to identify the guilty party.  Vernon steadfastly maintains his innocence but his behaviour over the course of the following few months, simply acts as further evidence to the police and the news media that he is guilty.  He flees to Mexico but is captured and put on trial as Texas’ most notorious serial killer. As a death row prisoner his fate will be decided in a Big Brother-style programme.

This is a story told from Vernon’s point of view. You’d think, given the subject matter, that this would be a fairly somber tale but actually it contains a surprising amount of humour. I don’t mean humour of the belly-aching, laugh out loud kind, but the type  that has you wincing — if you’ve ever watched eposides of the BBC sit com The Office (the original British version that is) you’ll have an idea of what I mean. The behaviour of the central character is ludicrously funny but we also cringe at some of his antics. We laugh with Vernon and at him but often feel guilty about the latter because he’s in essence a nice kid whose been given a rough deal. His father disappeared some years previously and his mother is, well let’s be kind and say she’s not really there. Instead of protecting her son and doing her damnest to get him the best legal help possible, she goes all dewy-eyed about a video repairman  who masquerades as a news reporter. “Lally” Ledesma is clearly a sleaze who befriends Vernon only to further his own career but Vernon’s mother doesn’t see the damage this guy is doing to her son. Vernon isn’t well served by the girl he fancies — she leads him on then shops him in order to further her own aspirations to be a media personality — or by his mother’s friends. They’re more concerned with junk television and, perhaps aptly in a town nicknamed ‘the barbecue-sauce capital of Texas’,  stuffing their faces with ribs and fried chicken. Vernon’s mother and her chums fret endlessly about whether he is getting enough to eat. Her closest friend Palmyra is a wonderful larger-than-life character who bellows at police officers when she finds they’re not feeding him enough:

So the door flies open. Pam wobbles in, bolt upright like she has books on her head. It’s on account of her center of gravity.

‘Vernie, you eatin rebs? What did you eat today?’

‘Breakfast’

‘O Lord, we better go by the Barn’

Doesn’t matter what you tell her, she’s going by Bar-B-Chew Barn believe me.

Pam just molds into the car. Her soul’s already knotted over the choice of side-orders you can tell.

No-one in this novel really comes across in a positive light however; they’re either fat, stupid or conniving. In fact, Vernon God Little is rather scathing about American society in general, portraying it as full of slobbish incompetent law enforcers and gun-obsessed gullible citizens.  Everything in this world can be turned into a form of entertainment — even the death penalty.  One of the most chilling plot developments comes when Ledesma sells an idea to a television network for a Big Brother style series where viewers get to decide the fate of prisoners on death row. Prisoners are given coaching on how to act when the cameras are installed in their cells.

Internet viewers will be able to choose which cells to watch, and change camera angles and all. On regular TV there’ll be edited highlights of the day’s action. Then the general public will vote by phone or internet. They’ll vote for who should die next. The cuter we act, the more we entertain, the longer we might live.

I wish I could believe such an idea will never materialise outside the world of fiction. But then who could have imagined a program about a bunch of misfits who live together in a custom-built home under constant surveillance??

No wonder that at the end, Vernon wonders: “What kind of a life was that? A bunch of movies, and people talking about movies, and shows about people talking about movies.”

So what did I make of this book? It was certainly an odd book.  Frequently loopy, barmy and just plain whacky, it was a tale told with gusto and zest. But the initial novelty of this style wore off half way through and, as much as I was interested in its ideas, I just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible.

Footnotes

About the book: Vernon God Little was the debut novel by DBC Pierre. Published in 2003 it won the Booker Prize the same year in the face of competition from Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut and Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.

About the author:  D.B.C. Pierre (the pen name of Peter Warren Finlay) has a ‘colourful’ history, admitting to being a drug-taking, hard-drinking, law-breaking tearaway in his past. His misspent youth gave him his nickname of Dirty But Clean (hence the DBC…). Part American, part Australian he now lives in Ireland.

Why I read this book: It was one of the remaining books to read in my Booker Prize project. Just six more to go..

 

 

 

 

 

 

History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey [Bookerprize]

NedKellyUntil I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, I knew only three things about its protagonist Ned Kelly:

  1. He was an outlaw in Australia
  2. He was hanged for his crimes
  3. In his final shootout he wore a helmet made from iron with slits for his eyes

Carey’s novel takes us way beyond those headline facts and into the mind of the man whose first encounter with the law happened when he was just thirteen years old and he was charged with the assault and robbery of a Chinese pig and fowl trader. By the time Ned Kelly was 25 he had progressed to cattle thieving, bank robberies and murder.  How this child of a dirt-poor Irish immigrant family became one of the most wanted men in Australia and the stuff of legends is the premise of True History of the Kelly Gang.

Based partly on historical documents including the Jerilderie Letter written by Kelly to a fellow outlaw,  the novel begins with a 12-year-old boy forced to grow up quickly when his father dies. As head of the family, Ned is fiercely protective of his mother and siblings, putting his heart and soul into building fences around their farm in Victoria and clearing the land to protect crops and livestock.  Manoeuvred by his mother to become an apprentice to the infamous bushranger Harry Power, Ned is drawn increasingly into a life of crime. He fights with his mother’s suitors and the police, and when he shoots a  treacherous police officer in self-defense, Ned is forced to flee into the wild bush country. With his younger brother and two friends he commits audacious crimes, all the while gaining widespread support from poor oppressed farmers and remaining one step ahead of the forces of law and order.

True History of the Kelly Gang is an imaginative reconstruction of Ned Kelly’s life story in his own words. Dedicated to the baby daughter he has never seen, Kelly wants to set the record straight. He promises her at the beginning that his history “will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false” and the word ‘True’ in the title further seeks to persuade us that this is an definitive and authoritative account of his life and of the injustices suffered by the Irish in Australia.

He repeatedly represents himself as a person who was pushed into the life of an outlaw by forces beyond his control. “What choice did I have?” he asks, when he kills the constable who heads the local police station. At other times he reflects on how he has been betrayed by the dishonesty of others. He operates to a code of ethics that will not let him see his brother imprisoned for an act that he Ned committed, and that drives him to rob banks to raise money for the release of his mother from what he considers an unlawful imprisonment. All of this is in strong contrast to the lack of princples he witness among the police, judges and fellow settlers.

All of this is rendered in a style that is striking. Carey’s narrative has a directness and immediacy of tone that makes it hard to resist Kelly’s portrait of himself as a man who had the stuffing knocked out of him  as a child. Coming out of a stint of hard labour in prison he reflects:

I were 17 yr old when I came out of prison 6ft 2in. broad of shoulder my hands as hard as the hammers we had swung inside the walls of Beecworth Goal. I had a mighty beard and was a child no more although in truth I do not know what childhood or youth I ever had. What remained if any were finally taken away inside that goal boiled off me like fat and marrow is rendered within the tallow pot.

The raggedness of this style of writing with its lack of punctuation and free flow from one thought to another took me a little time to get used to but once any initial reservations were overcome, I got swept along. Kelly may have lacked a formal education but he knows how to tell a story and to describe the environment in which he lives and hides. Here are a few examples I picked out:

“Many is the night I have sat by the roaring river the rain never ending them logs so green bubbling and spitting blazing in a rage no rain can staunch.” 

“The clouds was light but queerly yellow on their edges as they moved across the ageless constellations.” 

“Curtains of bark hung from the trunks like shredded skin”

These moments together with flashes of humour and reflections on the Irish experience were welcome contrasts to the torrent of detail about cattle thieving, double crossing, run-ins with the law and shoot-outs. Ned Kelly seems to have perfect recall of every stage of his life and every conversation and to want to tell us about every single detail. I got a bit tired of this three quarters of the way through. Though I did enjoy it, less would certainly have more with this book.

Footnotes

About this book: True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey was first published in 2000 by the University of Queensland Press. It won the Booker Prize in 2001. My copy is a paperback published by Mackays of Chatham.

About the author: Born in Australia in 1943, Peter Carey is the author of six previous novels and a collection of stories. He won the Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda; his other honors include the Commonwealth Prize and the Miles Franklin Award. He became only the second author to win the Booker Prize twice.

Why I read this book: it’s one of the few remaining books on my Booker Prize project. I included it in my 20booksofsummer project for 2017.

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