When the French accuse the United States of acting imperially in Iraq, Americans chuckle at how deaf they can be to our good motives. Pass the Freedom Fries, s'il vous plaît. But recent cultural messages from Europe may be more disturbing because they suggest just how deeply alarmed our friends across the Atlantic are about America's mental health.
Last spring, "Elephant" won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and now "Vernon God Little" has won the Booker Prize. Coincidentally, both Gus Van Sant's movie and D.B.C. Pierre's debut novel have just been released in the US. But perhaps not coincidentally, both these prize winners are based on the Columbine high school shooting in 1999.
Apparently, if such awards are any indication, when Europeans think of America, they're not just thinking of Ben Affleck and J. Lo, or even the Bushes' military exploits in the Middle East. They're thinking of children shooting each other.
The pervasive horror at American violence may be the only explanation for the Booker committee's bizarre decision to choose this grotesque satire as the best novel in the British Commonwealth. Pierre was reportedly shocked to have won, and having read it, I share his astonishment.
The story opens a few days after Jesus Navarro has murdered 16 of his classmates and committed suicide in the barren town of Martirio, "the barbecue sauce capital of Texas." Vernon Little, his only friend, is being held as a "skate-goat," and he narrates this bloody critique of American culture like a gutter version of Holden Caulfield facing execution. The plot revolves around human excrement, and the tone doesn't venture far beyond the radius of that odor.
"How could they think I did this?" Vernon asks angrily. "I hung out with the underdog, moved out of the pack, that's how, and now I fill his place."
I'd quote more, but I'd only be able to give you "and" and "the." Indeed, British critics have gone wild over the book's "authentic voice," by which they mean the way Little speaks exclusively in terms of copulation, waste, or female body parts.
If you see lots of movies, you know this is the way people speak in real life. And Vernon has seen many, many movies. Come to think of it, his constant allusions to cinema and television sound far more like those of a 42-year-old author than a 15-year-old pothead, but who gives a ****? It's the same annoying inconsistency that has Vernon usually saying things like, "There ain't puke enough in the world for today," while sometimes observing, "We play into an anesthetic sleep, just conscious of life collapsing around us in grainy pieces." Cool.
Poor Vernon is in deep trouble, all right. He's being held as an accessory to mass murder, but his gossipy mother is more concerned about impressing the neighbors with a new side-by-side refrigerator. A Freudian nightmare, she alternately weeps and nags. As he's led away by the sheriff, she calls after him, "Vernon, I love you! Forget about before - even murderers are loved by their families, you know...."
"Heck, Ma, I ain't a murderer!"
"Well I know - it's just an example."
Broad as this comedy is, Pierre takes his toughest shots at American media. Even before the police descend, "Lally" Ledesma, a CNN reporter, is already lurking in the yard, greasing his way into Vernon's confidence, seducing his mother, and flattering her chubby friends. He's a fount of journalistic clichés and faux sympathy: "Once again we don this cloak of mourning ... asking how do we heal America?" Pushed by Lally to recall the early signs of trouble in this "seemingly regular kid," one of Vernon's neighbor's finally remembers that in the weeks before the massacre, "his shoes got more aggressive."
Before Lally is through, he's betrayed Vernon multiple times, set up a sting operation to fake a confession on camera, and launched a reality-TV show in which viewers cast votes on who gets executed next. All this generates some laughs, but as a subject for satire, the rapacity of television news is as fresh as reruns of "Hard Copy."
What's more disappointing, though, is the way "Vernon God Little" ultimately descends to the same simplistic level it rails against in American culture. Psychologists, religious leaders, law enforcement officers, educators, and parents have sweat blood trying to fathom the dark forces that motivate these rare but terrifying acts of school violence. But here, we learn that it's all perfectly simple: The murderer was publicly humiliated as the victim of a gay porn ring. Ah hah! This is the sort of psychological depth we might expect from one of Vern's favorite made-for-TV-movies, but not from the British Commonwealth's best novel of the year.
Fiction, particularly sharp-eyed satire, can puncture the membrane of self-satisfaction that keeps us from seeing our own flaws and pathologies, but the Booker judges have erred if they hoped to convey that message. As Vern observes, "Where TV lets you down, I'm discovering, is by not convincing you how things really work in the world." The same might be said for some award-winning novels.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to firstname.lastname@example.org.