A Tale Of Two Views

As if the war in Iraq hadn't done enough damage to transatlantic relations, another culturally contentious issue is now gaining volume. This con-troversy is taking place not at the United Nations but in bookstores--and among reviewers--across the world.

Last month Britain's Man Booker committee awarded DBC Pierre's "Vernon God Little" its prestigious [Pound sterling]50,000 prize. In the announcement, the novel was praised as a "coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm but also our fascination with modern America." The story of a high-school shooting in Texas also reflects seriously divergent literary tastes. Reviews in the U.K. and Australia, where Pierre is from, have been largely laudatory, while most American critics have found much to dislike. "The great division in European and American public opinion on areas of political and foreign policy is creating this kind of critical firestorm," says Homi Bhabha, professor of literature at Harvard University.

The difference in opinion was apparent long before the Man Booker Prize was announced. Back in 2001, American publishers passed on the book unanimously, in part because 9/11 had many speculating that irony was dead. But when "VGL" began to circulate around Britain, its dark take on suburban Americana kicked off a bidding war that resulted in a hefty [Pound sterling]208,000 signing bonus--not bad for Pierre, a debt-ridden recovering drug addict who'd never published a book before.

The novel hit Britain's bookshelves like a bomb. "Vernon God Little" is "trailer-park Texas in all its dysfunctional glory," crowed The Guardian newspaper, and represents "the debut of one of the most original and seriously funny narrative voices in recent times." Britain's Sunday Mail actually begged readers to go out and buy the book.

Few American reviewers--our own notwithstanding--seem to have gotten the humor. Publishers Weekly panned the novel as "tiresome" and "unlikable." The Seattle Times attacked it as "vicious," "grating" and stocked with "cartoonish stereotypes and scatological broad strokes." New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called the book an "unimaginative compendium of every cliche you've ever heard about America."

Is there something deeper at work? Prof. John Carey, chairman of the Booker committee, vehemently denies that the prize had any political undertones. "The choice of the book was purely literary," he says. "Its language was more exciting than any other book we looked at." But Randy Malamud, professor of English at Georgia State University, suggests the novel's popularity abroad is due to the fact that "Europeans are mad at us and want to see us in a bad light." Says American novelist David Leavitt, "People are very sensitive to the idea of an outsider mocking the culture they live in." Bhabha takes a more measured approach. "The great tradition of American black humor is, it deeply distorts and is open to many meanings," he says. As DBC Pierre is fast discovering.