Vernon God Little (2003)
Written by D.B.C. Pierre
Vernon Little is a teenager living in the nowhere town of Martirio, Texas. After a life of mundanity, one day his friend Jesus up and shoots 18 of their classmates and then kills himself. Without anyone to heap their collective anger and rage on due to the suicide, suspicious immediately turn to Vernon. Everyone becomes convinced he must have known Jesus had this planned and therefore his hands are covered in blood. A reporter rolls into town who is named Eulalio Ledesma (Lally for short), and he claims to work for CNN with a promise he will help clear Vernon’s name. This is just the beginning of the foul-mouthed teen’s manipulations, and Vernon quickly learns everyone is out to claim their own piece of him. Events begin to spiral out of control, and Vernon is confronted with the fact life as he knew it is effectively over.
Vernon God Little is a foul-mouthed tome filled with righteous indignation. D.B.C. Pierre is the pen name of Australian-born author Peter Findlay who was raised in Mexico and currently lives in Ireland. His time in Mexico definitely informs his portrayal of the Maritrio and Vernon’s subsequent crossing into Mexico during his escape. He is also a keen student of language as the novel’s bedrock is his masterful touches with Vernon’s first-person narration. There is intentionally little character development which leads to the story’s cyclical finale, but each and every character sounds authentic and genuine to their economic and social positions in American society.
The most striking aspect of the story is how quickly the town affixes itself to the fame that comes its way in the wake of the school shooting. There is a brief period of mourning which becomes a constant hate-on for Vernon and a gleeful celebration of the media attention Martirio receives. Much is made about the economic opportunities the media circus will bring, and when things appear to not be headed towards the conclusion the media anticipates, the townspeople become angry that Vernon is not playing along with the conventional narrative. Vernon’s mother is mainly caught up in the possibilities of the outside world and escape from this town. She strikes up a relationship with Lally who is most certainly using her for a place to sleep and for sex until a better opportunity arises. Her relationship with Vernon is the most interesting in the book because of the numerous complications. They have a deeper understanding of each other than anyone else in the book, and so their scenes together are tense and awkward.
Pierre does a smart job of obscuring the details of the shooting. The opening has Vernon already in custody a day or two later and being questioned. It’s not until the final chapters that we learn what actually transpired in the school that tragic day. Keeping this from the reader’s knowledge allows Vernon to be seen as an unreliable narrator and his primary character presents him as a rather nasty, crude person, yet not necessarily capable of this level of violence. Joyce Carol Oates referred to Vernon as “Holden Caulfield but on methamphetamines” which is a very apt description.
The novel’s main ire is pointed at the hypocritical and buffoonish adults. Every institution from high schools to law enforcement, local government to the media are the focus of ridicule. It never plays as mindless raging because we have such a flawed character making commentary on them. In many instances, Vernon just sort of allows himself to be pushed through the system with no real effort to fight back. His passivity is normalized in his world, this is just what you do when authority comes down on you.
Vernon God Little is a very relevant novel for our current times. Sadly, little has changed on the school shooting issue since 2003 and in fact has just seemed to have gotten worse. Pierre isn’t pushing a particular political agenda of gun control or mental health. There isn’t a real effort to explain what happened, instead to understand the effect these chaotic tragedies have on communities and how people are exploited by entities in the wake.