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Texas for cretins

Don't mock Texans if you know nothing about them. DBC Pierre's Booker winner is shallow and safe

By Michael Lind   December 2003

Book: Vernon God Little
Author: DBC Pierre
Price: (Faber, £10.99)

If ever a country deserved to be satirised, it is the contemporary United States. The largest state in the union has just elected as governor an Austrian bodybuilder and movie star. The newly appointed deputy under-secretary of defence for intelligence, William G Boykin, has shown church audiences photos of what he claims are “demonic presences” over Muslim cities. The president of the country, the talentless son of a former president, has killed perhaps as many as 10,000 Iraqi civilians in a war to eliminate weapons of mass destruction which probably never existed. How can a satirist compete?

One satirist who cannot is DBC Pierre, author of Vernon God Little, the comic novel that has just won the Man Booker prize. Set in America, Pierre’s book is not just bad; it is so awful that its victory suggests there is something deeply wrong with British literary culture. To an American reader the book provokes neither amusement nor outrage, but puzzlement: are the British literati so ignorant of the US that they can think this is a competent parody?

The book jacket says that DBC Pierre has “divided most of the first 23 years of his life between Texas and Mexico City.” Well, I spent the first 21 years of my life in west-central Texas and continue to spend a lot of time there, and I can attest that the place generates enough material to employ dozens of full-time lampooners. I can also attest that Pierre knows nothing about his subject. If it is true that he spent time in Texas (according to the press, he has been a serial con artist), he must have spent it indoors watching television.

To begin with, Pierre has no idea how people in Texas talk. “To be fair, the rumours about ole Mr Deutschmann didn’t say he’d actually dicked any schoolgirls… Real slime though, don’t get me wrong.” Maybe this is slang in Australia (Pierre’s former home) or Ireland (his present home), but this is not how a teenage redneck in Texas sounds, even in parody.

Nor does he know what things are called in the part of America he writes about. “You should’ve seen Vaine at the hayride, she put away more corn than a truckload of empty Meskins.” I’ve never heard the name “Vaine” as a female name; he seems to have derived it, like the name of his protagonist, from “Verne,” which in American humour has become a stereotypical name for a rural, white southern man, like “Paddy” for the stage-Irishman of yesteryear. He fails to imitate folksy humour with his “truckload of empty Meskins,” which just sounds weird (the message that ordinary Texans are anti-Mexican bigots is clear enough – though it is worth noting that liberal California has had far more bitter Anglo-Latino tensions than conservative Texas).

Then there’s the hayride. My family has lived in the state since the mid-19th century, and I’ve never heard of a hayride in Texas. The hayride – a ride through the countryside, often by city folk or tourists, in a hay-filled wagon in autumn or winter – is a custom of New England and the upper midwest that is unknown in the south and southwest. Instead of hayrides, in Texas we have county fairs, livestock shows and rodeos. At these events vendors might sell popcorn, hot dogs, hamburgers, sausages and french fries – but they don’t sell corn, either in kernel form or on the cob. Still, American heartlanders are said to be “corn-fed,” so perhaps the corn reference indicates that Pierre has confused Texas with Iowa, having already mixed up Vermont and Texas in the hayride matter.

Pierre’s solecisms provide accidental comedy in this tedious book: “Bugs chitter in the willows, oblivious. The mantis rattles behind market stalls…” The mantis rattles? I had to read this several times before I realised that he was referring to cicadas. Praying mantises do not rattle; they make no noise at all. Pierre’s botany is as inept as his zoology. Willows are imported exotics in semi-arid central Texas; if this is based on actual perception at all, he seems to have mistaken cypresses or mesquite trees for willow trees. And a Texan would say “market booths,” not “market stalls.” When you put these mistakes together with his hayride error, it’s as though, in a scene set in the Irish countryside near Dublin, Pierre has described men in tartan kilts taking part in the Highland Games while snakes croak loudly under the coconut trees.

Effective satire should anger or humiliate its object, on the basis of the points of resemblance between the portrait and its inspiration. None of the types Pierre and his audience despise would recognise enough of themselves in his sketches to be offended. Before he became a novelist, DBC Pierre was a cartoonist. But that does not excuse the fact that his fictional cartoons are based not on life but on other cartoons. His “fat-assed deputy sheriff” is simply the stereotypical southern sheriff of American movies. Inevitably, there is a discussion of televised execution, a cliche of American satire that became hackneyed years ago. And Pierre’s attempt to exploit the horror of school shootings seems to have been inspired by Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine.

Andrew O’Hagan, who provides a blurb, unwittingly damns the book he praises: “You want to know what this terrific book is like? It’s 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.” Whatever else it is, this anthology of media cliche is not, as the publisher’s press release claims, “a satirical swathe cut through the twisted heart of contemporary America.” The heart of Springfield, Illinois, may indeed be twisted, but it has not been skewered simply because the Simpsons cartoon series is set in a town named Springfield.

According to the press release, “Through the character of Vernon, DBC Pierre has given a voice to a generation that mainstream America would rather ignore…” Oh, please. What could be politically safer or more commercially successful today, in Britain or the metropolitan US, than to make fun of ignorant, patriotic, God-fearing white Americans? Pierre merely recycles the cliche depiction of middle-class Americans as consumption-obsessed morons: “Well I have to get to San Tone for the new fridge, and I’m getting a quote on one of those central-vac systems too…” Don’t sophisticates have fridges, too?

Far from showing courage as a satirist, Pierre is a conformist who avoids challenging the sensibilities of the snobbish, transatlantic liberal left. Nowadays it is politically incorrect to portray blacks as idiots who love watermelon and fear ghosts, east Asians as buck-toothed people with glasses who say “Ah, so” and the Irish as sub-humans who exclaim “Faith and begorrah!” Yet, university-educated people as much as anyone else have a psychological need for an untouchable caste to give them a pharisaical sense of superiority. Today that psychological need is fulfilled by exempting middle-class and working-class whites, in the US or Europe, from the ban against ethnic stereotyping. This exemption permits all of the stereotypes of yesterday’s racist humour to be attached to those dreadful white Americans or Brits who have the poor taste to live in the US south or midwest, or the English suburbs.

At the moment in the US, there is a controversy over a nasty game called Ghettopoly, a parody of Monopoly set in a black inner-city neighbourhood, with crack houses instead of hotels, and so on. Many enlightened people from LA to London who would be shocked by Ghettopoly feel free to laugh at the moronic white American hinterlanders portrayed in movies like Fargo and Bowling for Columbine in the way that generations of audiences in American minstrel shows and British music halls laughed at caricatures of blacks. Whiteface – as the success of Vernon God Little proves – is the new blackface. If you doubt me, open a page of Vernon God Little at random, and make this simple substitution: all of the characters are black instead of white. At one point Pierre’s cartoon Texas sheriff says: “How many offices does a girl have that you can get more’n one finger into?” The comic malapropisms of pompous black characters were a staple of racist minstrel-show humour of the Amos ‘n’ Andy kind. If Pierre, purporting to unveil the reality of black America, had depicted a leering, sex-obsessed African-American police officer unable to distinguish the words “office” and “orifice,” would jury members like AC Grayling – a distinguished philosopher whose work I have long admired – have voted to award such bigoted trash the Booker prize?

But I don’t want to be too hard on the Booker jury. They’ve democratised literature by proving that a book doesn’t have to be any good to win a prize, so long as it exploits socially acceptable national and ethnic stereotypes. I’ve taken heart and begun work on my own courageous expose of contemporary British life, entitled The Isle of Cretins. Depicting Britain as a land of football hooligans, oversexed royals, fox-hunting toffs, secret agents and transvestite comedians, The Isle of Cretins will be based not on my limited personal knowledge of British society but rather on British media images that have made it across the Atlantic: Benny Hill, James Bond, Monty Python and so on. Maybe I’ll win the Booker.

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