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10 Oct 2003 11:51
Now, at least, he can start to pay that money back. The many creditors of the novelist DBC Pierre were given a crumb of comfort on Tuesday when the self-confessed serial “cheating bastard” won literature’s most famous prize—the Man Booker—in an extraordinary final twist to an already bizarre story.
Pierre, the nom de plume of the reformed Mexican-Australian wildman Peter Finlay, is the oddest and most controversial character to have won the award, which made the careers of Salman Rushdie, JM Coetzee and Margaret Atwood.
Last week he confessed to the London-based Guardian newspaper to betraying and fleecing his friends in a decade-long rampage over four continents that culminated in swindling an elderly American artist out of his home.
But three years ago, having fled to Ireland, a repentant Finlay began to swop the life of a fantasist for that of a fiction writer and created a character in Vernon God Little who has been called the Huckleberry Finn of the Eminem generation.
In an effort to prove that his rehabilitation was genuine, Finlay took on his pseudonym, which stands for “Dirty But Clean” Peter, a wry joke that was meant to signal that Finlay—who has lived in terror of being unmasked since he was nominated for the prize—had put his murky, buccaneering past behind him.
In his 42 years he has managed to get himself shot by a neighbour in Mexico City, work up debts of hundreds of thousands of dollars, cultivate drug and gambling addictions and leave behind a trail of wronged women, despite having to have his face reconstructed by surgeons after a horrific car crash.
Now he can add Man Booker winner to that gobsmacking curriculum vitae, and he can even start paying back the creditors he has vowed to make amends to. The Â£50 000 prize money is only the start—Booker winners invariably go on to make fortunes on the back of increased sales and telephone number advances for their next books.
But it was his rollicking debut, Vernon God Little, rather than his Rabelaisian personal life that mesmerised the judges, Professor John Carey, their chairperson, insisted. Like Finlay, the Texan teenager who is the hero of the book lied himself into a corner. Unlike Finlay, Vernon faced the death penalty, and not just the ire of his creditors and former girlfriends.
Carey called the book “a coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm and fascination with modern America”.
Everyone loves a rogue, particularly a repentant one, and many felt that the jury came down finally in favour of the Mexican-Australian over the favourite, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, for the elan of his writing, which has the colour of a life lived at suicidal speed.
In an intriguing twist to the tale, the odds on Pierre shortened dramatically in the last few days to 2-1 from 5-1.
Martyn Goff, the director of the prize, said only once before in its 35-year history had the judges made such a quick decision.
“It was amazing, it was all over within an hour. Four of the five judges jumped at Pierre and the fifth was not unhappy. I am absolutely shocked myself by the speed of it.
“Maybe they felt sorry for him because of his debts. Reading the book, you get the feeling it could only have been written by an American, when we know that it wasn’t written by one. We thought it was the most imaginative, unprecedented book for an English person to write,’’ he said.
Pierre/Finlay, however, despite his Australian twang, prefers to call himself a Mexican. The one group who will not be toasting his victory are the bookies, who, having played a part in Finlay’s earlier downfall, were badly burned.
Graham Sharpe, of William Hill, the doyen of literary sweepstakes, was sour about the shortlist.
“It was difficult to motivate myself to read the books. It is certainly the least impressive year I can remember,’’ he said.
But if the shortlist was unimpressive, the longlist and the pool of 100 more novels from which it was drawn was equally short on shock and awe.
Martin Amis, the perennial nearly man of British letters, failed yet again to live up to papa Kingsley, who won the Booker with The Old Devils. The manner of his failure this time, however, was utterly humiliating.
He only made the longlist for The Yellow Dog—a comic novel that several critics agreed was a dog indeed—because the judges apparently felt sorry for him after the novelist Tibor Fischer, a former fan, had savaged him.—Â
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