Vernon God Little “Shallow and Safe?”

A review in the UK’s Prospect magazine disparages Booker-prize winner Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre as “shallow and safe”:

If ever a country deserved to be satirised, it is the contemporary United States. The largest state in the union has just elected as governor an Austrian bodybuilder and movie star. The newly appointed deputy under-secretary of defence for intelligence, William G Boykin, has shown church audiences photos of what he claims are “demonic presences” over Muslim cities.

The president of the country, the talentless son of a former president, has killed perhaps as many as 10,000 Iraqi civilians in a war to eliminate weapons of mass destruction which probably never existed. How can a satirist compete?

One satirist who cannot is DBC Pierre, author of Vernon God Little, the comic novel that has just won the Man Booker prize. Set in America, Pierre’s book is not just bad; it is so awful that its victory suggests there is something deeply wrong with British literary culture. To an American reader the book provokes neither amusement nor outrage, but puzzlement: are the British literati so ignorant of the US that they can think this is a competent parody?

The book jacket says that DBC Pierre has “divided most of the first 23 years of his life between Texas and Mexico City.” Well, I spent the first 21 years of my life in west-central Texas and continue to spend a lot of time there, and I can attest that the place generates enough material to employ dozens of full-time lampooners. I can also attest that Pierre knows nothing about his subject. If it is true that he spent time in Texas (according to the press, he has been a serial con artist), he must have spent it indoors watching television.

To begin with, Pierre has no idea how people in Texas talk. “To be fair, the rumours about ole Mr Deutschmann didn’t say he’d actually dicked any schoolgirls… Real slime though, don’t get me wrong.” Maybe this is slang in Australia (Pierre’s former home) or Ireland (his present home), but this is not how a teenage redneck in Texas sounds, even in parody.

Nor does he know what things are called in the part of America he writes about. “You should’ve seen Vaine at the hayride, she put away more corn than a truckload of empty Meskins.” I’ve never heard the name “Vaine” as a female name; he seems to have derived it, like the name of his protagonist, from “Verne,” which in American humour has become a stereotypical name for a rural, white southern man, like “Paddy” for the stage-Irishman of yesteryear. He fails to imitate folksy humour with his “truckload of empty Meskins,” which just sounds weird (the message that ordinary Texans are anti-Mexican bigots is clear enough – though it is worth noting that liberal California has had far more bitter Anglo-Latino tensions than conservative Texas).

Then there’s the hayride. My family has lived in the state since the mid-19th century, and I’ve never heard of a hayride in Texas. The hayride – a ride through the countryside, often by city folk or tourists, in a hay-filled wagon in autumn or winter – is a custom of New England and the upper midwest that is unknown in the south and southwest. Instead of hayrides, in Texas we have county fairs, livestock shows and rodeos. At these events vendors might sell popcorn, hot dogs, hamburgers, sausages and french fries – but they don’t sell corn, either in kernel form or on the cob. Still, American heartlanders are said to be “corn-fed,” so perhaps the corn reference indicates that Pierre has confused Texas with Iowa, having already mixed up Vermont and Texas in the hayride matter.

Pierre’s solecisms provide accidental comedy in this tedious book: “Bugs chitter in the willows, oblivious. The mantis rattles behind market stalls…” The mantis rattles? I had to read this several times before I realised that he was referring to cicadas. Praying mantises do not rattle; they make no noise at all. Pierre’s botany is as inept as his zoology. Willows are imported exotics in semi-arid central Texas; if this is based on actual perception at all, he seems to have mistaken cypresses or mesquite trees for willow trees. And a Texan would say “market booths,” not “market stalls.” When you put these mistakes together with his hayride error, it’s as though, in a scene set in the Irish countryside near Dublin, Pierre has described men in tartan kilts taking part in the Highland Games while snakes croak loudly under the coconut trees.

Effective satire should anger or humiliate its object, on the basis of the points of resemblance between the portrait and its inspiration. None of the types Pierre and his audience despise would recognise enough of themselves in his sketches to be offended. Before he became a novelist, DBC Pierre was a cartoonist. But that does not excuse the fact that his fictional cartoons are based not on life but on other cartoons. His “fat-assed deputy sheriff” is simply the stereotypical southern sheriff of American movies. Inevitably, there is a discussion of televised execution, a cliché of American satire that became hackneyed years ago. And Pierre’s attempt to exploit the horror of school shootings seems to have been inspired by Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine.

(For some reason it is impossible for me to link directly to this article, which is why I have quoted it at such length. To read it, go to the Prospect site, click on Articles at the top, then click on “Current Issue” in the left column. The review is the sixth link down. Maddening!)

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