There used to be something thought of as ‘a Booker novel’ – a big, ambitious balloon sent up to signify seriousness and loftiness of purpose. Such books were not always very attractive or even very interesting, though we may learn to miss them just because their elevation already seems old-fashioned. Last year, the prize’s new sponsors let it be known that it was time for a shiny new populism, and so far the judges have concurred. Neither prize-winner, under the new regime, has been a crowd-displeaser, nor a crowd-puzzler.
John Carey, a serious man except when he is writing literary journalism, chaired this year’s jury, and announced that he was in favour of ‘widening what might be looked on as the Booker’s scope’. He and his judges had, he thought, a preference for ‘books with a strong storyline, a strong plot, a compulsion to go on turning the pages’. The prejudice is unsurprising; one of the inevitabilities of having to read more than a hundred novels concertinaed over a summer is that novels without much plot tend to languish. Suddenly everything should be shorter, even Ian McEwan. More troubling was Professor Carey’s opinion that Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good is ‘a very impressive novel of ideas’, just the kind of thing the Booker should favour. Ah, that would explain the exclusion of Coetzee’s novel of ideas, Elizabeth Costello – not up to the Hornby level. To be fair to him, the former Merton Professor is not slumming; he’s bought the place and moved right in.
But prize-winners should not be blamed for prizes, any more than gnats for standing water, and D.B.C. Pierre’s novel is an engaging book, lively and sometimes scintillating. It is in some ways a remarkable first novel, and its achieved tone of adolescent desperation and rebellion suggests years of broken gestation. (Pierre is 42.) It is also a limited work, cartoonish, narrow, raucous, too often mistaking noise for vividness. On the back, Andrew O’Hagan rightly characterises its effect as ‘like the Osbournes invited the Simpsons round for a root beer, and Don DeLillo dropped by to help them write a new song for Eminem,’ without telling us why that particular party would be enjoyable or even tolerable.
Pierre’s splendour is the creation of a voice, that of a bitter, troubled but smart 15-year-old Texan schoolboy, Vernon Gregory Little. Vernon narrates the book, and hurls his spiked words right at us. At his best, Pierre captures a pathetic combination of defensive cynicism and pain. Vernon hates his stupid, materialistic mother, who spends most of the novel waiting longingly for the delivery of a new ‘almond on almond’ side-by-side fridge. Mrs Little is very good at turning the knife in her son’s back, as Vernon reflects:
I’ll tell you a learning: knife-turners like my ole lady actually spend their waking hours connecting shit into a humongous web, just like spiders. It’s true. They take every word in the fucken universe, and index it back to your knife. In the end it doesn’t matter what words you say, you feel it on your blade. Like, ‘Wow, see that car?’ ‘Well it’s the same blue as that jacket you threw up on at the Christmas show, remember?’ What I learned is that parents succeed by managing the database of your dumbness and your slime, ready for combat. They’ll cut you down in a split fucken second, make no mistake; much quicker than you’d use the artillery you dream about. And I say, in idle moments, once the shine rubs off their kid – they start doing it just for fucken kicks.
Vernon’s home-town, Martirio, is a biliously ignorant place, populated by obese women, coarse cowboys, leather-lunged pastors with strapping voices, slow-witted deputies, and the like. Its chief attraction seems to be the local restaurant, the Bar-B-Chew Barn, a name Pierre repeats as often as he can. This ridiculous hole has just found fame: a Columbine-style shooting has felled 16 of Vernon’s schoolmates. Vernon is suspected of being involved, because he was the best friend of Jesus Navarro, the boy who killed the children, and because he is thought to have been present at the shootings. Vernon is not guilty, but no one cares very much. Most of the locals are too busy trying to get on TV. Vernon’s mother starts an affair with a CNN reporter, Eulalio Ledesma, who in time becomes convinced of Vernon’s guilt. Vernon flees – to Mexico, which generates the best passages of writing in the book – and this compounds his apparent culpability. He ends up in prison, a death sentence hanging over him.
One of Pierre’s targets, then, is false storytelling, and how communities hysterically provide it. Alas this is by now a familiar subject, anointed by cultural studies, and it is not clear that the novel has any real insights into the matter, except to say that ‘television made me do it.’ (Heinrich Böll’s novella, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, is a deeper fiction about the same thing.) It is a little wearying to encounter a heartless CNN reporter who is made to say things like ‘Ma’am, the world awaits’ as his camera rolls, or ‘Deputy, this is the public domain. God Himself can’t stop the camera.’ Still, it allows Vernon to sharpen his analysis of what he calls the ‘lie-world’. Often, this involves ripping the horrid visual truth from its habitual sheath, not always successfully: ‘Barry stands leering by the phone, eyes puckered into goats’ cunts.’ Or: ‘Deputy Gurie tears a strip of meat from a bone; it flaps through her lips like a shit taken backwards.’
First-person narrations are always delicate tricks, the delicacy being the balancing of the likely – ‘is this how this person would sound’? – with the literary: ‘how do I, the author, also manage to have my own style?’ As I Lay Dying wobbles around between the likely and the literary, and even The Catcher in the Rye suffers tremors. The Booker jury properly praised this novel for its linguistic daring, but the price is that Vernon, sure enough, does not always sound like a 15-year-old: ‘the certainty of our kid logic got washed away, leaving pebbles of anger and doubt that crack together with each new wave of emotion,’ Vernon recalls of his friendship with Jesus. ‘My buddy, who once did the best David Letterman impression you ever saw, has been abducted by glandular acids.’ (Compare Richard Tull’s lament in The Information that, at 45, he no longer ‘snags on the DNA’. Amis is being literary; but Vernon is not supposed to be a writer.)
For all the verbal skidding, D.B.C. Pierre is a conventionally good driver, and wants merely a chance to show off how well he can steer a straight course. He almost always strains belief in his narrator when he is most properly ‘literary’ as a writer; when he is being, unlike his narrator, a nice boy: ‘Moist air stirs me through the bars of my cage,’ Vernon tells us as he lies in a prison cell thinking lustfully of a girl, ‘and in my mind it becomes a shunt of hormone from the lip of her skirt.’ Elsewhere we have ‘I scurry away like a pack of rats’; ‘the damp fizz of tears’; and ‘the motorcoach fangs into a violet dusk.’ All of these are rather wonderful phrases, but decisively not those of a backward 15-year-old who could barely write at the age of seven.
For every false note, though, there is a sentence perfectly plucked and placed, when the obviously literary is checked by a weirdness, a tilted originality, that leads it back not to the author but plausibly enough to Vernon. ‘Her voice plays from deep in her throat, like a parrot’s. You want to check her mouth for the little boxing-glove kind of tongue.’ (How strange and alive is that ‘boxing-glove tongue’! This has the lift and idiomatic leap of Augie March.) When Vernon goes on the run, the book enjoys a fresh dimension. Vernon waits for the Greyhound bus, which stops by the roadside with a ‘Pschhsss’: ‘The door puffs open.’ The boy watches the power lines go by: ‘Power lines and fence posts read past like sheet music, but the tunes are fucken shit.’ In Mexico, he is assailed by ‘the hot, dishwashy dawn’.
If the Mexico passage is more vibrant than the rest of the book, it is not just perhaps because of the electricity of flight. It is also because it is a relief to leave the primary stripes of Texas for the hot mottle of Mexico. Texas is everything that Vernon knows and hates, and he transmits his fatigue with success. But Mexico is novel to him, and the escape from the known does him good as a narrator. For the book’s grave weakness has to do with its great single strength: its exclusive reliance on ‘voice’. In the end, it proves disastrous – disastrous for complexity, analysis, richness, variegation – for the novel to conjure its vision of Texas from a scabrous adolescent narrator.
Readers have different thresholds for the cartoonish. Mine has a very low lintel indeed. But there’s no doubt that the book is scandalously simplifying. Consider the descriptive data: Vernon’s home-town is ‘the barbecue sauce capital of Central Texas’. It is the kind of place where young Jesus Navarro, who is gay, is assailed by cries of ‘Wetback fudge-packer!’ from passing pick-up trucks, and where Willard Down’s used-car dealership has a sign that reads ‘Down’s Syndrome – Price’s Down!’ When the school shooting occurs, Eulalio Ledesma, the CNN reporter, arrives in town, only to begin his affair with Vernon’s mother. She shows not the slightest interest in rescuing her son from his entrapment by the law. She fails to visit him in prison because she doesn’t want to miss the delivery of her side-by-side fridge. ‘Lord God in heaven please let me have a side-by-side, let me open my eyes and it be there,’ she sighs at one point. When the court orders Vernon to be examined by a psychiatrist, he finds himself in the hands of a pervert named Dr Goosens, who is keen to prove that the best friend of the homosexual Jesus must be gay, too. He orders Vernon to strip, and then attacks his arse with first his finger and then a pair of steel salad tongs. And then there is Ella Bouchard, a troubled girl who runs around town exposing herself and asking boys if they ‘wanna see my south pole’.
Some of this hysteria can plausibly be laid at Vernon’s door: this is the sort of thing he would notice and the sort of thing he would choose to tell us about. But the aggregate of such material, its selection and form, is always the author’s choice. It is Pierre not Vernon who chooses to present us with Dr Goosens and Ella Bouchard, it is Pierre who forces Vernon’s mother to spend most of the book sighing for a fridge, who makes all of Mrs Little’s lady friends vulgar and vast. It is Pierre who ensures that not one of the Texans other than Vernon is ordinary rather than grotesque. It is Pierre who gives us a novel with so few surprises.
This is hardly a plea on my part for verisimilitude, though American responses to such incidents have tended to be the opposite of Pierre’s jiving freak-show: less a rush to televised judgment than a somewhat tedious literalism of case-building and ‘healing’, the twin mills of justice and therapy (all those trauma counsellors) grinding away deliberately. Willard Down’s ‘Down’s Syndrome’ sign would not last an unlitigated minute in an actual Texas. But again, the opposite of cartoonishness is not the actual. Ever since Philip Roth made his famous statement about how American reality out-fictionalises the fictional, the debate has not been about verisimilitude. Or rather, since cartoonishness characterises a great deal of American reality, it is fair to say that cartoonishness in fiction is now only a copy of American reality, not a bright invention. Cartoonishness is the new verisimilitude. So one wants less verisimilitude from D.B.C. Pierre, not more. One wants him to tell us something we don’t know, not to trumpet the noisily known. But there are no pianissimos among all this brass.