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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?’


‘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.


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..








What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

21 thoughts on “Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre [Bookerprize]

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  • Good to see you are ticking off the books from the Booker Prize – this does sound weird and that pitch for the reality TV show sounds particularly insane but as you imply, it could happen one day! Great review as always

    • I really felt uncomfortable about that reality tv idea because someone somewhere might actually think it is a good idea

      • That’s the whole point of satire I think isn’t it? To make people feel uncomfortable? I enjoyed your review Karen because while I read this book – and even went to an author event at the time – I remember very little about it except the mass shooting theme, that I liked the voice, and that it was out there. I’m so glad I have a blog now to refer to to remind me more of books I’ve read!

        (BTW Sorry about the late reply. I was away on a holiday when you posted this.)

        • I’m glad not to be alone in forgetting lots of the detail of books Ive read. My husband asked me the other day about a V S Naipaul book I read for my Booker project and I couldn’t recall anything except one scene.

        • Some of the worst books don’t even have one …

  • The subject matter sounds interesting especially since these dreadful shootings seem to be becoming ever more common, but the style sounds like it would put me off. In general, I struggle with books that try to be humorous, especially about dark subjects. Think I’ll skip this one…

    • I have a hard time with humour in books in general ….

  • I have read Brick Lane and Notes on a Scandal. Too bad one of those didn’t win, eh?

  • I’m afraid I didn’t finish this one. I was reading Gary Younge’s One Day in the Death of America when the Las Vegas shooting happened. It’s a very different look at gun culture, concentrating on individual deaths in a single day – some accidental, some not. I had to make myself finish it.

    • Vernon God Little was one of those books which took me a long time to read – I didn’t feel enthused to pick it up and found I could read only a few pages at a time

  • It was good for its time I read it when it won the booker and with events at the time it seem relevant the follow up novel was dire thou

    • I can see the relevance aspect but think he could have delved into the issue rather more than he did

  • It’s certainly a novel that didn’t win him any friends in the US. But (remembering that it’s a book from over a quarter of a century ago) it was a kind of literary precursor of the films that Michael Moore makes (Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 9/11).

    • No I can’t imagine people were happy with his portrayal of Texan society. It felt like he was taking a bit of a cheap shot though

      • Oh, I think Texas is robust enough to withstand a bit of satire…

        • I’ve never met a Texan so wouldn’t know….

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