Stranger than fiction: winner can now repay the friends he swindled

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The Independent Culture

At least he can repay that debt now. One of the strangest Booker contests ever last night resulted in one of the oddest winners: a novelist whose background makes the antics of most young writers look tame in the extreme.

As the world has known for the past few days, Peter "Dirty But Clean" Finlay long ago swindled a painter-friend out of the proceeds of a flat. However, if you want to indulge in wholesale pretence as a career it's far safer and more creative to con readers rather than pals. The reformed Finlay eventually did exactly that with his debut novel, Vernon God Little. His inspired soliloquy offers a brilliantly sustained feat of ventriloquism which brings its teenage Texan anti-hero to electrifying life.

Young Vernon, falsely accused of a High School massacre and dumped on Death Row, justifies his messed up life with scintillating verbal energy. This comic fizz and fire recalls the great tradition of Southern Gothic all the way to Mark Twain. Vernon is, in fact, a Huckleberry Finn for the Eminem generation - foul-mouthed, reckless, wayward, but moved in some mysterious way by feelings of kindness and respect.

DBC Pierre's novel shows how a young, confused but perceptive mind reacts to the threat of imminent death, in a society that takes life with relish and spins cosmetic fantasies of immortality. Death row narratives still have a tremendous valency in American fiction and film, possibly because they force thoughts of mortality on audiences encouraged elsewhere to believe that they can live for ever.

Above all, Vernon God Little is a triumph of American monologue: possibly the most expressive of its kind from a non-American author since Money by Martin Amis in 1984. The book also skewers a popular culture of trash food and trash TV, a Jerry Springer nightmare where truth and emotion wither under a barrage of slogans, catchphrases, and half-remembered media cliches. Young Vernon says he grew up drowning in "a gumbo of lies".

Now he has to maintain his integrity in a world that aims to reduce all experience to the flatness and transience of a screen image. As he reflects at the close of the novel, "what kind of a life was that? A bunch of movies, and people talking about movies, and shows about people talking about movies." A life, the novel answers, in which wildly inventive language and altruistic feelings can redeem the most chaotic soul. And DBC Pierre certainly knows a thing or two about the human need for redemption.


The appliances return early this Sunday morning, giving the day a brisk feel. March 28. Execution day for somebody. Engineers set the TVs up permanently this time, and install a system to shut them down during the vote. Emotions howl like pack dogs in my soul when a bunch of paperwork arrives with my breakfast tray. First is a brochure about how to act for the cameras, and what not to say or do. The whole Row must've got that one, on account of everybody's saying and doing the wrong thing. Under the brochure is a glossy page showing some cartoon convicts, with arrows on their clothes and all, giving hints for your last statement. Then another form has a list of musical choices for the Final Event: you get to choose one tune before the witnesses come into the chamber, and one for the event itself. It's mostly real ole music on the list. I know I'll regret my choices when the time comes. I'll just have to be brave to that wave.

As I digest things, the regular Sunday quiet falls over the Row. You hear some papers rustle. Then a con calls out, softly. "Burnem ­ you okay ­ my man?"

I turn over the last sheet of paper on my pile. Under it lays an order for my execution, effective six o'clock tonight.

I look at it like it was a napkin or something. Then I fall down on my knees, bawl like a storm cloud, and pray to God.