Book Group: Not worthy of a Booker win, but one of a kind

John Walsh reviews June's book, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
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The Independent Culture

Vernon Gregory Little is a 15-year-old schoolboy from Martirio, Texas, where there has been a Columbine-like multiple shooting. The killer was a Mexican called Jesus; Vernon was his pal, and now feels the eyes of the town - and the TV news teams - settle on him, willing him to be guilty by association. Everybody - the police, the shrinks, the hacks, his mother's gossipy chums - wants a piece of him. And gradually, behind the surface bluster of his narrative, we hear his story. We discover he lives with his mother, Doris, whose relationship with a phoney Latino TV guy he resents. We get hints about his embarrassing bowel disorder. We hear of his crush on a girl called Taylor. Hints about a "second gun" Vernon must find, and cliffhanger chapter-ends, briefly suggest we're being made accessories to some wrongdoing.

This is a novel filled with secrets, lies, half-glimpsed moments of wisdom and evasions of the truth. Sometimes it's hard to know what's going on behind the flood of data. From the title (Vernon uses the "G" of his name to adopt alternative identities, including "Gucci" and "Gates") to the author's nom de plume ("Dirty But Clean Pierre" conceals the identity of Peter Finlay), it's full of names, of people and places and brands, of useless information, images of consumerism: the Wilmer Plan (a diet), the Bar-B-Chew Barn, Jordan New Jacks (a make of trainers)...

After page 100 or so, things settle down into comic knockabout, as Vernon heads for Mexico, pursued by the law. But at the heart of this novel, Pierre is attempting the satirical feat of representing modern America as it presents itself, in its yammering inconsequence, to a teenage neurotic with a shaky sense of reality. Known locally as "the psycho", he looks back at Texas and detects craziness everywhere - and passes it on in howls of frustration.

For Vernon's voice, the Australian Pierre constructs a near-American idiolect that's part Just William ("I spy an ole birthday card from Mom amongst my chattels"), part Holden Caulfield ("Next thing you know, my goddam heart stops beating anyway. Just clean stops in its tracks, the whole damn thing"), part trailer-park, with moments of rhythmic originality that are DBC Pierre's alone: "Hot grasses heckle my face on the way up the hill; skeeterhawks twitch through the air, but dust is too bored to rise up".

Vernon lives with a selection of psychic knives sticking into his back, given the occasional tweak by his mother and by figures of authority. In his post-shooting adventures, we start to care for this beleaguered kid, negotiating his way through a world where he's presumed guilty, but no one knows his crime or the punishment he may expect.

I'm not sure Vernon God Little should have won the Booker last year; it's jagged and badly structured, and some crucial scenes are woefully under-dramatised. But as a close-up, jangling display of how it feels to be young and guilty in modern America, it's sui generis.