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Vernon God Little: A 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death
DBC Pierre
London: Faber and Faber, 2003.
£12.99, 279 pages, ISBN 0-571-21515-7.

Mireille Quivy
Université de Rouen

Vernon God Little
claims to be a 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death. What hidden or blatant tragedy does such an oxymoronic subtitle indeed portend? What intimate shame or public slaughter?

A tragedy of post-modern times or the inferno of a human condition prey to some divine comedy?

Peter Finlay, alias DBC Pierre is not howling for Martirio. This is his first novel, staging both the character and the idiom of a fifteen-year-old Texan schoolboy whose deceptive cynicism and fateful wanderings lead him on the verge of catastrophe.

The novel is divided into five acts, “Shit happened,” “How I spent my summer vacation,” “Against all odds,” “How my summer vacation spent me,” and “Me ves y sufres.”

Starting in medias res, it establishes from the incipit the duality that feeds the diegesis—“It’s hot as hell in Martirio, but the papers on the porch are icy with the news”—thus opposing in the purest Old Comedy tradition the chorus-like community of Martirio to an anti-heroic narrated and narrating I, Vernon God Little.

All the decisive constituents of the plot are then introduced as they would be in a conventional whodunnit: a highly symbolical Tuesday, a psychotic axe-murderer, Jordan new Jacks, Bar-B-Chew Barn boxes, caricatured police officers—monstrous, amorphous, cartoon-like, typically Hansonian—nowhere places given names, reminiscent of Texas and Colorado, hyperbolical statements galore, a central character permanently stabbed by a knife-like Freudian mother—portraying himself in self-derogatory terms—colours, smells, sounds, all blending into the final “scent of lumber being cut for a fucken cross” (11).

From Martirio to its Jesus and the smell of the cross, the long road to the Calvary has begun for Vernon God Little.

Hence a narrative that keeps oscillating between event and commentary, between dialogue and free indirect speech, the reader being simultaneously a witness to both sides of a “coiny” situation opposing a public world of social stereotypes and media hype to a private world of unutterable tragedies. In between, on the edge of text, pervasive humour, bleaching and scraping the surface of description, flirting with bad taste, swelling traits, emphasising bias through systematic anamorphosis, generated by the distorted vision of an unreliable narrator catching angles and obliques, and questioning the reader’s perception of a text constantly shifting from margin to centre and back. The gallery of fragmented portraits looks like a freaks show of deformity, a collection of grotesques, undermining the familiar structure of existence and revealing that chaos is imminent.

An ogre-like neighbour Pam, whose voice rattles furniture, portends as much misfortune as the “fate clouds” growing over the sun (13): prisoner of her coffin-like old Mercury, Vernon attends his own mock-funeral, driven home through streets along which girls are crying, mothers weeping, people devastated, while “reporters and camera people roam the streets in packs.” (15) Inside his prison on wheels, the bowed-headed Vernon resurrects the picture of a Jesus with his silk pants, his affinities, and his terrors, Jesus Navarro, the mass murderer, who launched Vernon on his quest for truth and knowledge when he himself was trapped and torn in-between the burning tongs of determinism that make freedom of choice seem so futile.

The world around Vernon God Little is a world of women, a world of fat, cellulites, diets and exaggeration, from which men seem progressively excluded; a world reduced to the lingerie magazines and mantis oil pump framing the family cell, itself dominated by a gigantic jelly matron chasing unlikely lovers; a world of guilt, ready to engulf Vernon, all the better to reject him, the unwitting scapegoat incarnating the lusts and vices of a hypocritical community, and embodying the intolerable, the unthinkable, the unbearable.

A world whose tempo is rhymed by the life-beat of Vernon’s fucken-ridden yet poetic idiom, pregnant with the anxiety of impossible self-definition.

I’m a kid whose best friend took a gun into his mouth and blew off his hair, whose classmates are dead, who’s being blamed for it all, who just broke his mama’s heart—and as I drag myself inside under the weight of these slabs of moldy truth, into my dark, brown ole life—another learning flutters down to perch on top. A learning like a joke, that kicks the last breath from my system. (113)

Vernon is accused of being accessory in the murder of sixteen of his classmates, being the only survivor of the shooting perpetrated by Jesus Navarro.

Haunting echoes of Columbine. Images flashing across the reader’s eyes. Young lives sacrificed. Mothers mourning. Real tragedy. No irony there, no underlying satire. Just cruelty, death and sorrow. “Silence erupts” (206).

Proof of Vernon’s innocence could yet be brought to light, were it not so shameful for him to reveal what his mother calls his “condition”. The only way out left is escape, going on the road, travelling to a foreign country and losing one’s self… in the hope to find it again:

Picture a wall of cancer clouds sliced clean across the border, cut with the blade of God, because Mexican Fate won’t tolerate any of that shit down here. Intimate sounds spike the tide of travellers, the new brothers and sisters who spin me south down the highway like a pebble, helpless but brave to the wave. (171-172)

But the media are watching, peeping, disclosing, baring and exploding individual lives. Their champion, Eulalio Ledesma, has scented valuable game and profit. The hunt can begin, the live show is already on, the wood of the pyre on which Vernon must burn is being collected. The novel then brings forth images from conventional road movies, before it mutates into a novel of awakening, permeated by social, political, and judicial criticism, leaving the satire ultimately to avidly devour what could have been a plain dish of news.

The fourth power is in the bull’s eye even as the media’s firing squad is targeting Vernon. The workings of the plot become as twisted as the insides of a doped muckraker’s mind; Gulliver-Vernon leaves the country of the Big to enter the realm of the Small, he becomes the traveller of the first Greek epics, the neo-pilgrim experiencing a parenthesis in time, stopping Chronos for a while, restoring the shadow of lost hope through young love and offered compassion. But time comes flapping back and with it, the promise of expiation and redemption. Back to the USA, the plot uncontrollably skids from the logical course of cause and effect to the labyrinth of improbable happenings.

Reality TV invades fiction again and eradicates all attempts at saving reason. Sinners become preachers, culprits become voters, the tragic-comedy progressively grows into a carnival whose evil spirit brings about and consecrates the advent of the absurd. The irrationality and extravagances of a world turned topsy-turvy destroy all possibilities of finding refuge in whatever values could still be alive.

Speech is contaminated.

Big Brother is bawling for sacrifice.


And suddenly, the last straw is shaken from the camel’s back.

Time Magazine is back on the bench.

And we read the last words: “everything’s back to normal…” (277)

The tribe is alive.

This is the end, beautiful friend…..

*And what happens here this review will not retrace for fear of spoiling the pleasure of turning those unexpected pages.

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