Doubt and Caution at All Times
An interview with DBC Pierre and Dan Rhodes on tour, together
"Take note of what happens in a lie-world like this," beseeches 15-year-old Vernon Gregory Little midway through DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little. If they're not famous last words, then they definitely make up the moment during which a novel that has thus far moved with the approximate speed of a funny car, the approximate path of decapitated poultry, and the approximate intensity of a thousand flashbulbs decides to freeze, or at least to draw a hesitant breath. It's an eerie moment. It's a Holden Caulfield-wearing-a-Dante-mask moment, and it's a moral of the story as much as it is an embittered kid's battle cry for help.
Set in Central Texas as well as in Mexico, and starring a naive but unsurprisingly old-souled teenager fingered as an accomplice in a Columbine-type massacre (and then, later, as a psychopathic spree killer), Vernon God Little (Canongate, $23) has been construed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic as an indictment of modern America, a satire so skewering of the Texamerica that our commander in chief has created that it very nearly veers off -- albeit hilariously -- into a rant on fat and greed and self-righteous creed. And on the justice system.
If it is a satire -- and DBC Pierre, the "Dirty But Clean" pseudonym for Peter Finlay, the author, the Australian-born rich kid whose self-described "wild confidence" led him on a now-exposed early life of "deep trouble" and connivance across at least a couple of continents (cocaine addiction, running cars along the Tex-Mex border, selling off in Spain the house-sat dwelling of a friend, amassing more than $200,000 in debt), says it's rather a series of "observations" -- then perhaps Joyce Carol Oates was right last week when she said through The New Yorker that Pierre's Booker Prize-winning debut ranks only among the output "of satirists who excoriate others while exempting themselves from blame."
On this topic, Pierre, a 42-year-old designer and cartoonist who now lives in Ireland, has little apparent worry. "I didn't actually see the piece," he says, "but you can probably answer for me." What he has is a bit of a cold and "half a mouthful of beef jerky." As we speak, he's at the Hotel Bijou in San Francisco's Union Square passing the phone back and forth with Dan Rhodes -- the 31-year-old British-publishing-industry malcontent and Granta-anointed author of Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories, Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love, and, most recently (and most importantly), Timoleon Vieta Come Home: A Sentimental Journey -- and they'll be appearing together at the Booksmith in a few hours. They are on a three-week tour that began in the Big Apple, will conclude in the Netherlands, and includes a Nov. 3 stop at BookPeople.
For his part, Rhodes, the probably underappreciated straight man "busy basking in Pierre's reflected glory at the moment," deadpans that "come the end of the tour, we'll probably be demanding different seats on different planes." Rhodes is passing the pair's off-hours reading and rereading Patrick Hamilton -- the English novelist whose centenary is next year -- namely his 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. He identifies with Hamilton's "sad and funny stuff about lonely people deluding themselves," as he does with the work of singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, who "looms large as a primary influence. ... Listening to people like him made me strip away some of the layers of disguise in my writing and actually got me writing kind of sad stuff, really. I love the way that his music, although it's just so heartbreaking, is also incredibly uplifting, and funny in parts. So, yeah, I suppose that mixture of melancholy and humor is what I'm after myself, really."
That mixture is potent in Timoleon Vieta Come Home (Canongate, $23), a novel concerning an alternately sympathetic and sickening character named Cockroft. He's a banished composer of little import -- mostly themes for such TV shows as Bibbly and the Bobblies and Turk Is a Four-Letter Word -- who lives in Umbria with his beauceron mutt, Timoleon Vieta. (In one of the "spooky" confluences between the two authors -- a love for Vietnamese lounge music, "no-blurb-rule"-breaking on the same book: Daren King's Jim Giraffe, writing with "regret and revenge" -- Pierre himself owns an example of the rare breed.)
When the mysterious "Bosnian" seeks shelter at Cockroft's villa after hearing that he essentially puts up young men in exchange for sexual favors and odd jobs, the lonely old drunk is eventually forced to choose between the two, as the surly stranger grows to hate the pet. This is where Rhodes' third book -- which becomes a kind of orbital series of folklike tales with various men, women, and children of destiny encountering a lost dog at their center -- begins to throb pleasantly with the storytelling simplicity that one of his idols, Chekov, predicated. By its end, the novel is a violent triumph.
Pierre, who was an admirer of Rhodes' fiction before meeting him earlier this year and recognizes in it that "wistful thing around it, that beautiful sense of sweet pain," is currently working his "way through the Quran for no other reason than, well, it's supposed to be an unspeakably beautiful poetic book, at least in its original language. Obviously, I'll never be able to fully understand it, but I've got an inkling that some kind of objectivity could stand me in good stead in the future. I'm just interested to see what the book says before any more shit hits the fan," he says with the beginning of a giggle. "If you print that, I'll probably have a black van following me for the whole rest of the trip. I may never be heard of again."
Interpreting the Quran is an appropriate whim for the author whose primary target in Vernon God Little is extremism, particularly the extremes to which the mainstream media conglomerate can stretch and bend and disfigure the truth, and how that can affect our comprehension, memory, and outlook. The novel opens with a Bar-B-Chew-Barn-rib-devouring deputy questioning Vernon on his and his dead friend Jesus Navarro's role in the 16 shootings at their high school. "I'll remind you that, stuss-tistically, only two major forces govern life in this world," Vaine Gurie tells him, after "half-heartedly" offering him a rib. "Can you name the two forces underlying all life in this world?"
"Uh -- wealth and poverty?"
"Not wealth and poverty."
"Good and evil?"
"No -- cause and effect. And before I start I want you to name the two categories of people that inhabit our world. Can you name the two proven categories of people?"
"Causers and effecters?"
"No. Citizens -- and liars."
Thirty pages later, Eulalio Ledesma, a venomously despicable opportunist whose pose as a Geraldo-like CNN reporter in the wake of the Martirio, Texas, massacre ends up adding mightily to Vernon's plight (and flight), informs him that there are "only underdogs and psychos in this world," while still later, court-assigned psychiatrist Oliver Goosens says during a session that "there are only two kinds of people in your position: glorious, powerful boys, and prisoners."
Of course, Pierre plays with other themes -- he has been "obsessed with Pythagoras and the possible relationship of music and mathematics and numbers to the course of life" and confessed over the phone that the text's 555 instances of the word "fuck" represent the 555 conquistadors who landed in Mexico in 1519 and are part of a "sub-sub-subplot on the conquest of the Americas. ... It's a little curlicue, a motif I put in on those days when the writing was too hard-going to contemplate" -- but it's this one that counts.
"I didn't want to set out on an agenda," Pierre says. "It's a picaresque reflection that in my mind sort of farcically cut in both ways. There are forces now sponsoring or manipulating viewpoints. Complex stories come and go very quickly these days, and get followed up less and less. ... It seems to be telling people they deserve things and that they're worth certain things. It's bigging us up. A lot of people are very certain in their minds these days about things that really have great depth. I used to be like that, as well. Having spent 10 years examining myself and things, I work now from a position of doubt and caution at all times."
With his second novel nearly completed, this one surrounding two "bamboozled" Westerners in a globalized and diverse Europe, Pierre's backstory and stunning Oct. 14 Booker win (he beat out the likes of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, as well as Monica Ali's Brick Lane) are as close to instant myth -- not to mention star-power -- as contemporary practitioners of literary fiction get. When London's Guardian reported in the days leading up to the Booker announcement on Pierre's past, which he calls "a lot of hurt and a lot of shit that really speaks more of my weakness and stupidity and wickedness," the book world buzzed with images of a mysterious, larger-than-life outsider, a ne'er-do-well working up wonderfully funny books in a coke-infused frenzy. (Vernon God Little was finished in 18 months and was discovered by an editor on the slush pile; the book's success, along with that of Timoleon Vieta and last year's Life of Pi, which also won the Booker, has put the financially troubled, Edinburgh-based Canongate in the black.)
What they got onstage at the ceremony was a repentant, reluctant celebrity who had barely avoided bankruptcy. He also quoted Lloyd Bridges' "I think I picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue" line from Airplane and promised to pay back his debts. In the weeks since, Pierre has fought off the media's urge to romanticize his life as a "muted throwback cunt," so much so that he bristles a bit in response to whether this might indeed be another con, a cynical ploy of some sort, a plan that his character Ledesma could hatch and hype. "To be honest, we fucking shat ourselves when it all came out," he says. "No, no, it broke on its own, and it meant that I'd made quite an enemy. I had understandably left some anger in a particular person. I certainly won't be trying to trade on it, and I wouldn't want the win to take away from the heat of the thing.
"I've never closed that chapter in my life, because the only thing that stands between me, you know, making good in the end or being a complete villain is to keep these things around me until I can crawl out into a different space."