Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Divine retribution

In a 2003 piece in the Spectator, Theodore Dalrymple aka Anthony Malcolm Daniels lived up to his pseudonym - that of a pompous, priggish Victorian patrician - by condemning D B C Pierre's Vernon God Little in no uncertain terms as "a work of unutterably tedious nastiness and vulgarity, written by a man with no discernible literary talent whose vulgarity of mind was deep and thoroughgoing". Such denunciations only ever succeed in making the book in question - in this case, that year's Booker Prize winner - an even more appealing prospect. Sure enough, it proved to be superb company on my recent trip to the US, which may not have been to Martirio - the novel's "barbecue sauce capital of Central Texas" - but nevertheless involved plenty of licking barbecue sauce off fingers.

Martirio - an incestuous pressure cooker of a place where there only seem to be a handful of surnames and everyone knows everyone else's business - is home to the titular Vernon, a Holden Caulfield raised on junk food and trash TV by a mom preoccupied with keeping up appearances for her friends and neighbours. A tragic hero for our times, bemused by the world and obsessed with an unobtainable girl, he finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into trouble with the law through little to no fault of his own. The question is: will he let the bastards grind him down?

Vernon is a gem of a comic creation, though in truth the novel is teeming with fantastic fleshy caricatures brought to life through visceral, frequently nauseating imagery that evokes smells as well as sights. Pierre's gift for offbeat dialogue is also readily apparent, and often the source of the comedy.

What starts out as a warts-'n'-all portrait of small-town America shape-shifts into a comic caper and then into a courtroom drama and even a suspenseful thriller, the narrative propelled by judiciously timed developments and revelations and peppered by Vernon's various "learnings" along the way. It's a mediation on fate, victimisation and vengeance. It's a savage Black Mirror-esque indictment of the justice system and the muscle of corporations and television within contemporary American society and culture. And it's a hilarious tale of a loser patsy with irritable bowels. However you want to read it, Vernon God Little is a triumph.

Some aspects made me think of Napoleon Dynamite and the portrayal of awkward teenhood in Nowheresville, USA; the later sections put me in mind of The Shawshank Redemption. Overall, though, it reads like glaringly obvious source material for a Coen brothers movie, a Texan cousin of Fargo - especially given that nothing seems to have come of a proposed Werner Herzog adaptation, mooted back in 2012. Ethan, Joel - the ball's in your court.

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