Peter Finlay was watching television when the idea for his novel, “Vernon God Little,” winner of this year’s prestigious Booker Prize, came to him.
News footage showed a teenage boy — the suspect in a school shooting — climbing into a police car. Finlay, who wrote under the pen name D.B.C. Pierre, said in an interview Wednesday that he started thinking about the adolescent’s ruined life and wondering what was going through his mind.
The result is a sharp, satirical look at contemporary America, a darkly comic novel written in the voice of a teenager who is falsely accused of a Texas school shooting. It was Finlay’s first book, and it won Britain’s biggest literary award on Tuesday.
Finlay said that “Vernon God Little” is shaped by “a dynamic of guilt and redemption” that comes from his own turbulent life. The $80,000 prize will go straight to his many creditors, he said.
Finlay, an Australian who now lives in Ireland, doesn’t remember who the teenage suspect was or where the crime happened. But it prompted him to think about what happens in the wake of a highly public tragedy.
“It was terrible what he’d done, but I came to think, ‘Really, how responsible was he?’ He sort of destroyed his own life as well,” Finlay said.
“It just seemed such a ... hopeless position. It was really, really saddening. It just led to a train of thought, ‘What might this kid feel?’ The voice of my character came to me and it sort of flowed on from there.”
Vernon Little, 15, is the novel’s central character, and his voice is biting and distinctive. Readers meet him just after his friend, Jesus Navarro, kills 16 high school students and himself in the fictional Texas town of Martirio. Blame falls on the innocent Vernon, who becomes the target of the town’s wrath. Fearing he’ll get the death penalty, he goes on the run.
The book pokes harsh fun at Texas trailer park inhabitants, whose excitement at their brush with television fame overpowers all else. The book also targets the sensationalistic journalists who offer the trailer park residents the spotlight.
Finlay said he also meant to satirize a condescending, caricatured view he thinks some people overseas have of the United States.
“I’ve cut the story line together from bits of media that come over our television, which is either the euphoria or despair (of America) — no middle ground,” he said.
John Carey, chairman of the Booker judges, hailed the novel as “a coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm, but also our fascination with modern America.”
South of the border childhood
Finlay, 42, said he developed his own view of the United States while growing up in Mexico, the son of a well-to-do scientist. He attended a school for expatriate children and frequently traveled to Texas. Although he has never lived in the United States, he figures he has spent several years there.
“I grew up with a Mexican sense of yearning to be over the border, to be on the States side,” he recalled. “I probably got a certain magnified impression of the country, seeing it from the other side of the fence.”
Finlay now makes his home in Ireland. The Booker Prize is open to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth of former British colonies. It is unusual for a novel on an American topic to win.
Much has been made in the British press of Finlay’s checkered past.
After his father died and his family lost much of its money in Mexico, he spent his 20s taking drugs and accumulating debt that is still with him. He acknowledged cheating a close friend by selling the man’s apartment in Spain and then keeping the money.
The initials in his pen name stand for “Dirty But Clean,” a nickname he picked up as a teenager.
First-time novelists were well represented on the shortlist of Booker candidates this year, which is unusual. A number of prominent writers didn’t make the final six, of whom Canadian Margaret Atwood was the only established name.
When the financial services conglomerate Man Group PLC began sponsoring the prize last year, the award’s full name was changed to the Man Booker Prize.