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DBC Pierre (Peter Finlay)
Vernon God Little
Reviewed by: Nazalee Raja © 2005

Faber and Faber
UK, Trade paperback
ISBN: 0 571 21516 5
277 Pages; £7.99
Publication date: 2003
Date Reviewed: 8 April 2005

Index: General Fiction  Mystery

'Vernon God Little', winner of the 2003 Man Booker Prize, is the first novel of DBC Pierre (the initials DBC, standing for Dirty But Clean, is the pseudonym of Australian- born author, Peter Finlay). In the present day climate of publishing cut-backs, it has become rare for a first novel to be published, and surely a dream come true for that first novel to then win one of the highest accolades for a work of fiction.

This is a first person narrative, told from the perspective of a fifteen-year old boy, and as such is littered with profanity and, predictably, the odd episode of sexual fantasy. The novel opens with the eponymous narrator, Vernon G. Little (whose middle name, Gregory, is replaced throughout the novel with variations which reflect the narrator's perception of himself), being questioned by the police. In a tragic cry for help, Vernon's best friend and fellow outsider, Jesus, has killed sixteen of their class-mates and himself, dramatically placing their home town of Martirio, Texas, on the world news map, leaving Vernon struggling to prove his own innocence. As the country's press descend on Vernon's doorstep to soak up the gory details, Vernon realises the press, the general public and the justice system need a living scapegoat in the absence of the real culprit, who has placed himself beyond both the scales of justice and media scrutiny.

'Vernon God Little' is a scathing indictment of various aspects of contemporary Western life, not least the unscrupulous tactics of modern journalism, trial by television, the increasing popularity of reality TV programmes (feeding on the misery of competitors), and the social inequalities created by poverty. Vernon's fight for justice is played out like a soap opera for the viewing public because, in Vernon's words, "Your neighbor's tragedy is big business now, I guess because money can't buy it". When local boys capitalise on the tragedy by selling "I survived Martirio" tee shirts, the local preacher tuts and shakes his head — at the extortionate price!

Vernon, both as a character and a plot device, works well in this biting satire, as we follow the numerous twists and turns of the narrative with a confused, naïve, but at times perceptive, teenager who is frantic to understand the world, and shares his "learnings" with the reader. Vernon has the insight to understand that Jesus was ostracised because he couldn't "afford new brands" and that his actions were a way of alleviating his powerlessness. Yet Vernon too becomes powerless against the escalating media frenzy and public's lust for scandal, lacking the skills and knowledge to assert his rights and innocence.

The prose is quirky and imaginative, coming as it does from a fifteen-year old boy with a lively and at times crude turn of expression. For the most part Vernon's dialogue is characteristic and well-rendered, punctuated by the occasional word or expression inappropriate for his age and character. The observant characterisation extends to the remaining characters, in particular the passive-aggressive mother, who prefers to discuss the new fridge than her son's predicament. She, and numerous characters, are all too willing to overlook the barefaced lies of the unscrupulous media man, Ledesma, in return for promises of television exposure.

The novel is funny and poignant in turns, filled with intimate details which bring the small town to life. For example, we are told one character puts her trash four days early to show off the designer bags. The various plots twist work well, encouraging the reader to empathise with Vernon, and to read on in anticipation of Vernon's fate — although the observant reader will notice the odd continuity error. Overall, this is an astonishing first novel which makes some very valid social comments and is a cracking good yarn.

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