Odds and Ends Shelf: Vernon God Little

One learning, though: my big flaw is fear. In a world where you’re supposed to be a psycho, I just didn’t yell loud enough to get ahead. I was too darn embarrassed to play God.

I read so many books at once, and such dense works, that it’s rare that I blaze through one in only two days. Such a book would need to not only be straightforward enough that I don’t need to worry about scanning the text for subtleties and small details, but the events in it would have to be urgent enough that I can’t put it aside to satisfy my curiosity about what Against the Day will get around to covering next. This story of a teenage boy who’s being fingered as an accomplice to a school shooting does pretty well at both.

Again, I’m going to examine a shorthand blurb I found on the inside cover of this book, but this time, it’s even less fitting than the one for The Grace of Kings. “Catcher in the Rye meets South Park,” it says, which poses two problems. The first might be overstated by me, as someone who hasn’t read Catcher in the Rye yet, but I don’t remember hearing that Holden Caulfield from that book is ever under as much pressure, in as much mortal peril, as Vernon Little is here. Both of them are outsiders who feel exaggerated contempt for the people around them, who act like fakers and phonies, while also demonstrating behavior that they themselves are far from perfect, which is why I don’t blame anyone for making the Catcher comparison. However, context matters, and unless Holden is also trapped in the center of a media circus, I’m willing to cut Vernon much more slack.

The second is that while Vernon God Little is cynical and vulgar, it isn’t nearly as absurd as South Park gets on a regular basis. It may have been when it was first published in 2003, but now the only thing that I can’t quite believe would happen is the reality show near the end where viewers vote on who gets a lethal injection next. Everything else is sadly all too believable, especially now that America screwed up and elected a reality show villain for president. A young high school kid is framed as a murderer by media shysters looking for someone they can hurt as retribution for a sensational atrocity, on the basis of no concrete evidence at all? Why not? Hell, Vernon’s lucky he’s white, or else he would have been killed before events of chapter one!

Setting aside how miserable these next four years are going to be, even with an impeachment, and what Vernon God Little isn’t despite what other reviewers say, I’ll focus on what it is. It’s a tense, uncomfortable story of a teenager whose usual adolescent angst about not belonging is amplified by the circumstances of his best friend killing several other students and then himself. He never fit in with the small-town Texans in his life, and now that he thinks they want his blood, his flailing attempts to escape keep making things worse for himself. Not that the situation in general is his fault; more than anything in a blurb, this book reminds me of A Series of Unforunate Events, in that everybody else in Vernon’s life that he feels he could take solace in lets him down, either by being sympathetic but ineffectual or by being overtly out to screw him. He doesn’t even have any siblings or peers in the same boat, like the Baudelaire children do. Only when he learns to stand his ground, take responsibility, and play other people much like he’s been played does he get a pardon from a terrible fate.

Vernon God Little also reminds me of The Plot Against America; both books spend most of their pages gradually building up a dreadful situation for the main character, right up until the end where it gets alleviated, as if the author didn’t want to entirely crush the reader’s hopes and dreams. Unlike The Plot, this happens because of Vernon’s agency, but it also doesn’t have The Plot‘s parting note of lasting trauma. Vernon’s victory is a relief, and it’s satisfying to see the scummiest people in the book take his place, but is it a likely outcome in real life? His circumstances are unusual, but they’re something I can see happening to someone in real life. I absolutely believe that there are enough vindictive, prejudiced, small-minded people in small town America to make life hell for anyone stuck there who doesn’t fit in. Just look at who they picked for president.

Still, there are decent people in Vernon’s life, just as there are decent people in real life who aren’t willing to put up with Donald Trump. His plan technically wouldn’t have worked without them, and it’s that kind of hope that I’ll be clinging to in the months to come.

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