D. B. C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little was an unusual Man Booker winner (2003).
D. B. C. Pierre’s Vernon God Little was an unusual Man Booker winner (2003). Not only was it brilliant, it was also a first novel, and apparently by an American. Holden Caulfield was invoked, and Liam McIlvanney called it ‘the most vital slice of American vernacular since Huck Finn’. It turned out, though, to have been written by a Brit, ‘on the floor of a box-room in Balham’.
D. B. C. Pierre is the nom de plume of Peter Finlay, an evolved childhood nickname — ‘Dirty But Clean’, which is evidently his motto as a writer. Foully satirical, he is also sweetly allegorical. The romance of a high- school gun massacre, VGL reminded me of a darker and funnier Douglas Coupland, and while Coupland writes American but is Canadian, Pierre is a bit more complicated.
Born of British parents in Australia, he grew up in ‘a lavish mansion’ in Mexico City, and has lived around the world (currently up a mountain in Co. Leitrim). In his wild jet-setting youth he became involved in drugs and other illegalities, and wrote VGL when he was nearly 40, after years of rehab and recovery; after its success he repaid the money he had stolen as an addict.
Predictably but justly, his second novel, Ludmilla’s Broken Eng- lish, a tedious saga of Siamese twins in London and the Caucasus, was given a critical kicking. Lights Out in Wonderland, his third, is in perfect accord with the D. B. C dynamic: Good But Bad, or possibly vice versa.
Written in the first person and present tense, it is essentially a Luddite addict’s wistful fantasy of intoxication. Aged 25, a self-described microwave chef, pamphleteer, failed student and bad poet, Gabriel Brockwell has just begun a course in rehab when, for undisclosed reasons, he decides to kill himself. So he escapes to his Withnailian flat in London, to stock up on drugs and to smash his mobile phone, iPod and laptop — ‘that vacuum of life, that cretin savant, that whining, obsequious, pilfering Latin maid, that wanker’s sheltered workshop’. And from London he flies to Tokyo for a debauch with his friend Nelson Smuts, a genius chef in a poison blowfish restaurant, after which Smuts is imprisoned for murder.
Apparently the only way for Gabriel to rescue his friend is to arrange a staggeringly decadent party for an entrepreneurial caterer called Didier Le Basque, which he manages to do in Berlin, where most of the action occurs. Amid this sometimes enjoyable farrago of a plot there are loving descriptions of the old East Berlin, of Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg, where Porsches burn in the streets for the delectation of anti-capitalist Easties, and of Tempelhof, Hitler’s monumental airport, where Gabriel arranges the Basque’s feast.
Pierre’s writing is extravagantly energetic, abounding in brave but doomed similes — ‘the short night passes like an itch’; ‘my hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism’ — but disfigured by annoying tics, such as ‘woosh’ and ‘uh’.
The indefinite postponement of Gabriel’s suicide, while he takes drugs and falls in love with a fierce Eastie, occasionally threatens tedium, or indifference, and so does the wait for the climactic orgy — ‘the greatest bacchanal since the fall of Rome’ — which is still quite impressively disgusting, featuring Kiwi & Hummingbird Broth, Giant Panda Paw and Caramelised Milk-Fed White Tiger Cub.
There is a violent ambiguity in Pierre’s approach to his subject — decadence — which is never satisfactorily resolved. An extended binge, Lights Out in Wonderland leaves us somewhere between elation and nausea.