The book earned author DBC Pierre a Man Booker prize in 2003 and was chosen as this month’s reading selection because of its content. Here’s a blurb I found at Reading Group Guides about it:
When sixteen kids are shot on high school grounds, everyone looks for someone to blame. Meet Vernon Little, under arrest at the sheriff’s office, a teenager wearing nothing but yesterday’s underwear and his prized logo sneakers. Moments after the shooter, his best buddy, turns the gun on himself, Vernon is pinned as an accomplice. Out for revenge are the townspeople, the cable news networks, and Deputy Vaine Gurie, a woman whose zeal for the Pritikin diet is eclipsed only by her appetite for barbecued ribs from the Bar-B-Chew Barn. So Vernon does what any red-blooded American teenager would do; he takes off for Mexico.
And since I’m there, I’ll answer some of the questions they provide and prep for tonight’s discussion in the process.
1. How does Vernon’s colloquial narrative voice help to develop him as a character? Does it ring true to you as the everyday speech of a young Texan? Do you “hear” Vernon speaking as you read? Is his voice different from the way characters in the book speak to one another? How does it change over the course of the novel?
I’ve never been to Texas but Vernon’s vernacular is designed by Pierre in a way that gives him a unique voice, akin to how J.D. Salinger built the character of Holden Caulfield (I hated Holden, but I like Vernon). I don’t know if any high-schooler would use metaphors and similes to the extent Vernon does, though, and the way he describes the everyday things he’s looking at is pretty cool, like this from page 92 of my copy: “My eyes search the market for a window of opportunity, but all I see are drapes in the form of Lally, Mom and the goddam pastor.” He misspells/mispronounces words sometimes, too – like “powerdime” instead of paradigm (pg 56), “skate-goat” for scapegoat (pg. 66). I think Pierre also set him up to swear a lot at the beginning of the story but that tapers off before the end of it. That wasn’t anything I noticed while reading, only as I’m flipping back and forth through the book now. I think he also did a good job of making all the characters distinct with their own voices.
2. How does the lack of male figures in Vernon’s home life affect him? How does Lally’s arrival change the dynamic of the household? How does Lally use his maleness to manipulate the situation, not just with Vernon’s mother and her friends, but with Vernon himself?
Vernon knows his mother’s financial situation is piss-poor and having Lally around makes her happy but after only a week under their roof, Lally starts to treat Vernon like an abusive parent might. Lally also assumes Vernon is a murderer and hopes getting to truth of what happened at the school will launch his reporter career into the stratosphere. Vernon does what he can to cut Lally off at the knees, as it were, by looking into Lally’s history, past jobs, and his relationship with his own mother. Nothing really seems to work to discredit him, sadly, but Vernon figures out a way by the end of the book so it’s all good.
3. What is represented by the “knife” that Vernon refers to throughout the book, starting on p. 7: “it’s like [his mother] planted a knife in my back when I was born, and every fucken noise she makes just gives it a turn”? Later, he explains that parents “take every word in the fucken universe, and index it back to your knife . . . parents succeed by managing the database of your dumbness and your slime, ready for combat.” (41) Do we all have “knives”? Are they created and used by our families, or by ourselves?
As descriptive work goes, it’s brilliant. He notes a parent digging a new knife into a young kid at some point, something about how she talks to the kid and humiliates him in a very offhand kind of way like the parent isn’t even aware she’s saying something mean but the result is the same as if she meant it with malice. There was also someplace in the book where he witnesses a mom pretending to die after her toddler gives her a tight hug. He notes the reaction of the child in the process; pretty young to deal with guilt trips of that magnitude.
4. The question of cause and effect is central to novel. What do you think is the cause of the Martirio school shooting? Can there be more than one cause of an event like this? Is the town itself partly responsible for the massacre? Are Goosens and Nuckels? What about Jesus’s classmates? If we read the “cause and effect balls” Vernon plays with obsessively in his death row cell as a metaphor, what might they tell us about these questions?
Vernon’s friend, Jesus, was gay, or assumed to be gay. The science teacher, Nuckles, might have been also, and the major event that triggered Jesus’ desire to get his gun and mow his classmates down happened in that class as the teasing and gay-bashing reached a crescendo. Goosens is the psychologist Vernon is forced to see after the event, who assumes his relationship with Jesus was sexual. Goosens also loosely suggests that the lack of proper man influences in Vernon’s life is what’s turned him gay, even though he’s not gay at all.
I think Vernon blames himself quite a bit for not being able to catch up with Jesus before he did something stupid, but his own body turned traitor on him at the worst moment possible and he was too busy taking a shit elsewhere to do anything to stop him. The evidence of where he was (away from the school during the shooting) was findable but so humiliating (I’m assuming) that Vernon went to death row rather than admit to it in a court of law, or even in front of police when he was first questioned. Vernon counts on Nuckles being able to tell the court that he’d sent Vernon on an errand but Nuckles is so traumatized by the event and his own injuries that he’s no help at all. But there is another reason why he needed to hide the evidence of where he’d been at the time – he was in the same hiding place as he stashed his mother’s gun..the one she used to kill his father, although he never says that directly — there’s just several instances across the book where it’s remarked that the new patio furniture doesn’t sit neatly on the earth by the house.
Last one I’ll do:
5. Vernon God Little contains elements of two classic American genres: the adolescent coming-of-age story and the road novel. Critics have mentioned the novel’s similarity to The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. How would you compare Vernon God Little to these novels? What other novels (or stories, or films) did it remind you of? Do you think Pierre is consciously referring to these archetypal stories?
I mentioned Holden already and I haven’t read Finn but I think I’m going to see if I can convince the guys to read that for next time since it was recently announced a publishing company had decided to reissue a more politically correct “whitewashed” version of the story. I expect Pierre couldn’t avoid the comparisons and in order to write a book about a boy’s journey from stupidity to enlightenment, he’d have to follow the same road other authors have traveled. It’s a common format, from Star Wars to Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings. It’s called an archetype for a reason. It’s such a common way to run a story now, does anyone even know what story was the first to do it?
Huck Finn is a good story until Twain conjures up a totally unbelievable plot coincidence to bring the characters together toward the end of the novel. At that point I yelled, “Hack!” and nearly put the thing down altogether.