Looking at a greetings card on his mum's breakfast bar – a cartoon baby trying to say "love" – the hapless 15-year-old hero of Vernon God Little reflects on his upbringing as "a gumbo of lies, cellulite and fucken 'Wuv'." In Martirio, the barbecue capital of Texas, the truth is as malleable as Jell-O, the diet-obsessed locals are lardier than life, and love is either hokum or a cocktail of glandular acids.
Things are pretty jumpy. Three days earlier, 16 high-school kids were massacred by Jesus, their Mexican classmate. Jesus and Vernon were friends, but then Jesus took to wearing silk panties and keeping secrets. Vernon, with problems of his own (disappearing dad, flaky mother), has a talent for being in the right place at the wrong time. Everything hinges on whether a second gun, belonging to Vernon's father, is found. By the end of the summer, Vernon has gone from being chief witness to convicted killer on death row. "I hung out with the underdog... and now I fill his place."
DBC Pierre's debut novel is funny and touching as it rain-checks contemporary America. Yet it's more than a rattle through popular culture. The novel's literary references are American classics: Vernon's narrative, full of itchy injustice, recalls The Catcher in the Rye. Like a Huck Finn tanked up on six-packs, Vernon in his innate innocence exposes the nature of American experience. It may be a Greyhound bus, rather than a raft, that helps a boy escape, but the rite of passage isn't so different.
Vernon is not as stupid as he thinks. He sees through the dippiness of his mother to her vulnerability. In his way, he is chivalrous towards luscious Taylor Figueroa (thoughts of whose bikini pants keep him going) and the teenage hillbilly Ella Bouchard (exposure to whose underwear almost puts him off sex for life.)
Pierre's language backflips off the page. The sky is "a rug of time-lapse clouds, muddy like underfruits bound for the fan"; weeping women howl "pizza-cheese bungees of spit". Language also offers moments of comedy. The author catches the colloquial tics of his characters – the slimy shrink who starts sentences with "Alrighty", and Mr Abdini, the attorney who declaims a phoneticised legal-speak: "You don tsetse fly today".
Among the slobbish law- enforcers, the powder-puff paedophiles and huge housewives, one of the best creations is "Lally" Ledesma. A creepily amoral video repairman, Lally catapults Vernon towards that lethal injection. Selling the broadcast rights to prisoners' executions, he turns inmates into Big Brother contestants. When they're voted off, it's for good.
Pierre's pungent narrative bursts with references to films and television, as if people can only frame their experience if they've seen it on screen. 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."
Despite a few implausible plot twists, this is a book about finding the good in yourself and in other people. Beyond the body-bags and barbecue sauce, the vicissitudes of Vernon reveal not just a rebel for the Eminem generation, but a boy of such sweetness he makes death row a respectable address.
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