Award-winning novelist writes satire of school shootings

Thursday, October 16, 2003

— 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 Tuesday.

Finlay said that "Vernon God Little" was shaped by "a dynamic of guilt and redemption" that came 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 happened 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 told The Associated Press.

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 thought some people overseas had 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.