VERNON GOD LITTLE By D.B.C. Pierre (Canongate, $23) The one thing everybody seems to know about this startling, dark-horse Man Booker Prize-winning novelthat it's about


This Week's Reads

VERNON GOD LITTLE By D.B.C. Pierre (Canongate, $23) The one thing everybody seems to know about this startling, dark-horse Man Booker Prize-winning novelthat it's about Columbineis not true. Even though its pell-mell action is triggered by a school shooting in an imaginary Central Texas town, it has absolutely nothing to say about the causes of such tragedies. The gunning down of students by classmate Jesus Navarro is barely described, just a gimmick to get events in motionand Jesus' best friend, Vernon Little, on the run. The novel's subsequent tone, pace, and underlying nihilism are like the endless murder of Kenny on South Park. The book is an obscene cartoon, yet it's an obscenely readable cartoon, full of deep emotion. It's a coded version of the author's real, stranger-than-fiction life on the run; he (real name Peter Finlay) was a cokehead junkie jailbird who stole from friends and dined from Dumpsters. None of this is in the book, but the guilt is, plus an audacious tale-spinning gift and headlong energy. Vern, the 15-year-old narrator, is falsely implicated in the school shootingthe "skategoat," in his own eloquently scrambled patois. Like a hunted man in a Hitchcock flick, Vern doesn't feel innocent, not with the whole world after him and circumstantial evidence conspiring to stamp GUILTY on his face. When a predatory TV newsman finds two joints on Vern, the scene is informed by the author's pre-rehab youth. And when Vern refers to "my slime" (his dirty secrets), it feels autobiographical. Vern tends to defecate unpredictably, and a crucial piece of evidence in the case is a turd Vern left at the crime scene: a metaphor for Finlay's stinky past. Much of the novel is derivative. Vern channels Holden Caulfield, Ignatius J. Reilly, Tyrone Slothrop, and Irvine Welsh's Filth. Events are arbitrary, set in locales less vivid than the pyrotechnic inside of Vern's own head. The characters are cartoonish lampoons, and Vern's flight and fight for life are curiously static. The satire of America at its worstrootin' tootin' Texas trash culture, amoral, greedy, tasteless, media-crazed, heartless, brainless, ruled by violent authorities out to ruthlessly crush any American who dares to be unluckyshould be a cruel cartoon, but Bush and Ashcroft are working to make it the national reality. One suspects the Booker jurors meant the prize partly as an indictment of Dubya. What redeems slimebag Vern and justifies the jurors' choice is his exquisite gift of slangy gab. His sentences dance with jolting verbal music; his metaphors are as daring as Finlay's scams, only he pulls them off. An evil Texas cop's "chins recoil like snails shot with vinegar." Courted by the TV newsman, Vern's mom's eyelashes "flutter like dying flies," her face in disappointment is "like a calendar kitten after a tractor accident." And don't even get me started on the naughty parts of the book (including the denizens of the plot-turning Web site Bambi-Boy Butt Bazaar, also known as Serenade of Sodom). In life, D.B.C. Pierre may be a reformed pseudonymous fraud, but in literature, Finlay is the real thing. TIM APPELO D.B.C. Pierre will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 4 p.m. Sat., Nov. 1. TIMOLEON VIETA COME HOME By Dan Rhodes (Canongate, $23) It's not easy being one of Granta's anointed Best Young Brits, especially when Dan Rhodes' publishing-house stablemate, D.B.C. Pierre (see above), has so suddenly eclipsed him. I suspect Rhodes' reputation will survive, although it won't be on the basis of this short, bifurcated debut novel of exile and return. The first half concerns the happy Umbrian household occupied by aging English ex-pat composer Richard Cockroft and his adopted stray dog, Timoleon Vieta. This is the portion that ran in Granta"When he lived alone, he used toenail clippings and pubic hairs as bookmarks," Rhodes writes of this dotty, alcoholic, unloved hermitand the reason I wanted to read the book. Then there's the second half, after Cockroft is induced by a Bosnian interloperwho services him sexuallyto dump his beloved mutt in distant Rome. (It's a love triangle, you see, between dog, dog owner, and rent boy.) Timoleon Vieta embarks upon a homeward odyssey modeled on Eric Knight's 1938 Lassie Come-Home, intersecting with the lives of various people during the journey. In Lassie, these episodes were uplifting and heartwarming, only here nobody benefits from the pooch's presence. The uplift is ephemeral, and Rhodes makes you a sucker for expecting a cheerful reunion at the story's end. Why bother reworking such a naive, outdated form of fiction? Why create charactersboth human and caninewith the intent of destroying the reader's investment in them? Rhodes can write well enough, but he fails to justify or integrate this oddly compound story. Part one is a novella; part two is a series of short stories linked by the dog and concluded with a narrative act of rug pulling. It adds up to three aspects out of balance, as if Rhodes can't decide which attitude to support with his talents: sincere, snide, or superior. BRIAN MILLER Dan Rhodes is scheduled to appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), Sat., Nov. 1; call to confirm time. THE LOS ANGELES DIARIES By James Brown (William Morrow, $21.95) Diaries begins with a description of the gale-force Santa Ana winds and their effect on the California landscape. One could easily translate this burst of nature writing into pop psychology: As a teacher, struggling screenwriter, family man, and desperate alcoholic and drug addict, Brown is restless and volatile, subjecting the people around him his students, his colleagues, and especially his wifeto sudden gusts of emotion. Fortunately, this complex memoir defies such pat interpretation. Brown's prose is direct and confessional as he relates familiar Hollywood frustrations while trying, throughout the mid-'90s, to get harried studio execs to green-light his work. These Tinseltown anecdotes are punctuated by stories of heartbreak from Brown's pastas in "Snapshot," set in 1961, about his mother's imprisonment when he was a boy; or "The Facts," which finds him teaching Huck Finn, high on coke, to a roomful of college students. What makes Brown's dual-track approach so effective is that it keeps you guessing; from chapter to chapter, there's no telling where he'll go, tonally or temporally. And when an autobiographical work explores potentially melodramatic terrain (alcoholism, childhood trauma, suicide, etc.), such guesswork is welcome. Brown's restlessness as a writer comes to a head in "My Papa's Waltz." Much as Tim O'Brien did in The Things They Carried, Brown steps out of the scene a "dance" with his drunken father to comment on the dubious nature of storytelling, and of knowledge itself: "Maybe it isn't 1962 in that cramped apartment on the poor side of San Jose. Maybe it's 1963. Maybe I'm closer to eight than seven, and why my mother is sent to prison doesn't really matter because she is never coming back, not the same woman anyway, and what I did know of herbeforeis little more than imagined." In this way, Brown fuses stark, poignant tales of woe and authorial insight without descending into self-pityor self-indulgence. NEAL SCHINDLER DA CAPO BEST MUSIC WRITING 2003 Edited by Matt Groening; series editor, Paul Bresnick (Da Capo, $16.95) Everyone has a different idea of what music is "best," and that goes double for how it's written about. Such contention is especially fierce among music critics, particularly when a perceived "other" horns in on their . . . oh, screw it, our precious territory. I get plenty snippy whenever I read a hotshot litterateur's half-assed piece on an artist I've cared about for years, whom they were assigned to profile for no other reason than that they're a hotshot litterateur. Although I imagine that some novelists feel no less indignant reading a jargon-filled record review about a band not yet featured on NPR that's only decipherable by other rock critics. Traditionally, the problem with Da Capo's Best Music Writing series is that it veers more toward the litterateurs than the professional music writers. And although (conflict alert!) I'm honored to be included in the "Other Notable Essays" list at the end, this criticism's even truer of the 2003 volume than its three predecessors. The credited guest editor is Simpsons creator Matt Groening, but the selections seem so randomly chosen, it's difficult to imagine he spent as much time putting it together as he does drawing the same panel over and over again for an Akbar and Jeff strip. The book is also studded with some real duds: Wil S. Hylton's Beck profile is second-person hell; Lawrence Joseph's history of Detroit R&B is smugly, unreadably impressionistic; and Elvis Costello's 24-hours-of-music marathon is even slighter than most of his recent music. As usual, historical essays outweigh those on current topics. This can make for scintillating readingsee Terry McDermott's entertaining history of N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Mark Sinker's multileveled consideration of Greek experimental composer Iannis Xenakis, and Michael Corcoran's (misspelled in the book as Cochran) investigation of early gospel-bluesman Washington Phillips. Yet even this strength becomes a weakness. The series remains too mired in the past. There needs to be more emphasis on music happening right nowNPR and McSweeney's be damned. Equally important, where are the pieces on music that couldn't have been happening 20-plus years ago; i.e., how is musical culture changing? I understand the need for big bylines and guest editors to hook readers, but this Best Music Writing anthology needs to better live up to its name. MICHAELANGELO MATOS

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