The man who fell to earth
Published 16/04/2006 | 00:11
WHEN DBC Pierre was 37, his prospects were bleak. Flat broke, he'd been unemployed for a decade - and when he applied for a job stacking shelves in a supermarket, he was turned down.
"They didn't hire me because I was too weird, plus I was very honest, which doesn't help you in life these days. They'd say: 'What have you been doing for the past five years?' And I'd say: 'I was in rehab for three years and before that I was in the courts.'"
He told them about his drug addiction and the narcissistic personality disorder he had struggled to overcome. Whether the illness was caused by the drugs, Pierre doesn't know, but he was told that his clinical disorder manifested itself in him having lofty and completely unrealistic dreams.
"You think: 'I'm going to be great, I have the power of the gods in my hands.' And so you manage your practical world on the basis of that dream. It makes you anincredible liar because you'reconstantly trying to bridge thegap - you're doing nothing andyet you're living as though animminent future is going to appear. In rehab, they pointed out that I wasn't educated and told me to get a job in a factory - to just accept the fact that I was like everyone else."
And so, he sought a job tomatch his underwhelming skills. His efforts were fruitless - yet, in an odd way, the brick wall he met with helped. He says it was only when he was turned down as a shelf-stacker that he began to face the grim reality. "Now I'm really f**ked," he thought.
With not even a menial job to lose, Pierre decided to haveone more stab at making something of himself.
"At the end of the Nineties, through artistic and personal frustration, I finally said: 'The only thing I haven't tried to do is write.' I started Vernon and that was my last test of the theory that there might be some good in having a lofty dream. The idea - that I would do a work of art - was that complete bullsh*t? Or was there something in it?"
Two days before his 38th birthday, he started writing.
"There came a moment, under immense self-generated pressure, when I had to pull a rabbit out ofa hat."
He finished a first draft in five weeks, then got an agent, an advance and a publishing deal. With its comical first person narrator, Pierre's book was hailed as a successor to JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Vernon God Little won the Man Booker Prize in 2003 and went on to be a best-seller in 38 different languages.
It should have been a wonderful success story, a fairy tale come true - but Booker acclaim brought a fresh set of problems. The weekend before the awards ceremony, the newspapers broke the story that DBC Pierre, the author formerly known as Peter Finlay, had done a property deal for a studio with an American artist and never paid him the $34,000 they agreed on.
That was in 1986, when Finlay was in his 20s and the artist in his 50s. Now the victim was elderly, in his 70s. The details were circulated to Pierre's agent, publisher and the Booker judges, advising them not to give any money prize to this despicable man.
What wasn't in the papers was that when Pierre made the shortlist, it dawned on him that Booker-related sales could help him pay off his old debts.
"For the first time in 16 years I tried to track this man down, and I caught up with him in September 2003. I phoned him up, told him I was desperately sorry and explained that, with this book I'd written, there was a chance of making some money, to pay him back.
"He was fantastic. He was even counselling me on the phone, saying: 'I've put it all behind me. Don't feel too bad.' Before I won, he had obviously told his family and they, remembering all the sh*t that I'd put him through, contacted the Booker people."
Pierre was accused of hiding for all those years, by changing his name but as he points out, if he was going to change his name as a disguise, why would he go with something like his nickname? (Dirty Pierre is a French Canadian cartoon character, the author's initials are variation of it: DBC - dirty but clean.)
"I mean, if I was going to use a forename like 'dirty but clean', what would be the first question they'd ask? I went to the prize ceremony with that sh*t on my back. If Vernon hadn't won, that'd be a horrible tale . . . I sent him the proceeds of the book cheque - $70,000 - the next day and he was happy enough. Although his family still thinks I'm a slimeball, which is fair enough."
On the sunny morning I meet DBC Pierre in Dublin, he smiles for the camera - and then has another admission for me. "I now regard myself as a recovering Bookerwinner. I was just thinkingthat there's a parallel here - the Booker turned my life upside down at least as much as all the othersh*t before."
These days, Pierre lives in Leitrim with his Australian girlfriend. The nearest neighbours are a mile away. He moved in before the Booker brouhaha, so people took him as an ordinary blow-in and welcomed him warmly.
"I fell in love as I drove to find the place. I went in the dead of winter. It was foggy and there were mountains and hills, and I was aware that under the fog there were lakes passing on this side and then the other. I thought: 'This is paradise.'"
The house was run-down and rain leaked through the ceiling, but when he saw that a previous owner had installed a bar, that clinched the deal. When he moved in, his neighbours' random actsof kindness charmed him to the core. One day, he went out to the shops and when he came back he discovered that someone had anonymously mowed the pasture around his house, simply because it was the time of year to do it. "Leitrim is a special place," he tells me. He enjoys the quiet life there, a life of the mind, where he writes as he listens to the river. It was in "lovely Leitrim", as he calls it, that he wrote his second novel, Ludmila's Broken English. He couldn't have written it in London, he says, as there'd be toomuch noise.
"All I can handle is the sound of a tractor slowly approaching, and then slowly disappearing."
Such isolation could push many a person over the edge, but Pierre has had so much noise in his life, and has lived at least nine lives, each as dangerous and dodgy as the next, that at this stage in his life, the lull of Leitrim fits him perfectly. Halfway through talking to him, I tell him that I'm worried that I'm not going to hear all ofhis escapades in our allotted time. He agrees.
"I'm too old," says the 44-year-old, "there's too much life to tell."
I try to pin him down on some basic facts. Peter Finlay was born in Australia, went to school in England for a short spell, and when he was seven, with his parents and his elder sister, went to live in Mexico City. "The biggest city in the world," Pierre says.
He lets the phrase hang in the air, his pause suggesting all the great possibilities and perils. Within minutes of meeting Pierre, you'd know that he has lived dangerously. His past is all in his face - a badge of brawls and bad living; there are those broken veins on his cheeks, the scar on the right side of his forehead and the way that one of his eyes seems to be lower than the other.
The scar is from a car accident - and no, he wasn't out of his headat the time, it was fromspeeding and general stupidityin a 12-cylinder Jaguar convert-ible. "I survived that, barely." And so it was with the drugs and the delusions. He knows that it is a miracle that he is around today - sane, solvent and still breathing.
But I want to know what happened to him. When did he go off the rails and why? What was he like when he was young?
"I was a lovely little boy, if Isay so myself. I was polite and I could draw."
But as he tells me his tale, I am reminded me of the opening line of'When I started driving, there was nothing we couldn't do, nothing that wouldn't cost a fiver to get out of. It's very corrupting to have that much freedom as a youngster'
a Frank O'Connor story. "All the trouble began when . . . " During our time together there are a lot of sentences like that. "That couldhave been the seed of trouble . . ." "The principle thread of trouble for me was . . . " "And so, it was easy for me to become a bit undone . . . "
His first setback was when, aged seven, he fell ill with hepatitis and had to spend a year in bed.
"The only cure was rest. It was a sh*t year, because it was the yearthat I was supposed to be going to a new school and integrating into life in Mexico."
He spent the year in bed,drawing.
"I practised and practised and became an artist. It stood for something, because my imagination grew. Childhood illness gives you a bit of strength, some stamina, but it was also a seminal thing."
After he recovered, his parents were faced with the choice ofkeeping him a year behind in school, or letting him stay in his class and just catch up. They chose the latter. Pierre sees this as his "all the trouble began when . . . " moment, as it meant him falling out with his peers.
"I never caught up, never learnt my times tables. I started going off on my own tangent."
His father, a geneticist, had to travel a lot, and he often took his son with him.
"My folks had a belief that it was more educational for me to travel and taste the world than to sit in school and learn my times tables."
Looking back, he can see the wisdom of their ways, but his absences from school, often for months at a time, only helped "sow the seedsof trouble".
Pierre's family were well off, and that prosperity brought freedom and privileges, which, he says, are not always good things.
"As a kid in Mexico City, you have to face incredible poverty. But if you're incredibly wealthy, it gives you access - much more access than you would have here.
"In a country like that, which was corrupt, you could buy policemen. We used to cut loose as kids and go on adventures in our cars. When I started driving, there was nothing we couldn't do, nothing that wouldn't cost a fiver to get out of. It's very corrupting to have that much freedom as a youngster." Sometimes he and his friends would stay in for the night, but they would do as much damage indoors. One friend's father worked in a pharmaceutical company, so the boys would study the PDR - the Physician's Desk Reference - going through lists of drugs andside-effects, then order their favoured narcotic.
"We'd sit up for three days being stupid, not realising that we were getting sucked into substances."
When Pierre was 16, his father fell ill and went to New York to be treated for what turned out to be a brain tumour. Left at home with the servants, Pierre invited his pals over and the partying began. And on and on it went.
His father died three years later, after which his mother couldn't bear to return to Mexico and his sister had gone to live in Australia. Alone, with the money his father had left the family, Pierre tried to act like the head of the family. At that time he was working as a photographer, shooting bands and album covers and generally keeping close to the drug scene.
"Not only was I a typical 20-year-old, but I was a typical Mexican young man, full of testosterone and machismo."
Then the Mexican economy took a nose-dive, and suddenly the substantial amount of money which his father had left became a pittance. But being the new head of the family, he kept up a front and hid the truth from his mother.
She had no idea that things were so bad and Pierre assured her that he would "talk some stuff up, move and shake and network", so things would be OK.
"I kept thinking I'd do something great, paint a great picture or something. I needed a huge drug habit to feed this delusion that I was going to pull this off, and atthe same time I was trying to keep this money lie afloat with my family. It ended up mounting and mounting until I collapsed under drugs and the weight of all that."
Pierre was 27. Then there was a lost decade when he lived in Australia, Britain, Spain, Trinidad and the US. His drug use spiralled, though in Europe it grew even more dangerous.
"In Mexico, I had the purest and cheapest cocaine, but in Europe and Australia it was impure and expensive as f**k. Suddenly it was costing me 15,000 quid a week to keep it up. And when I was in Europe, I eventually got on to smack.
"If you get into drugs young, the psychological hook is a pain in the arse, because in your mind you're always thinking: 'I've got to keep this under control and get off it some day.' But to have the discipline to do that, you think you need a bit more of that drug. It's a horrible cycle."
Eventually, Pierre had a total breakdown, had therapy, became de-programmed - and, at the age of 37, had to begin his life all over again. So he started looking for a job stacking supermarket shelves.
He's extremely grateful that he managed to get out of all that trouble. On top of that, the literary success gives him great joy. It brought him freedom and the ability to clear his debts. But it's notbright lights and plaudits he is after, he says.
"The important thing is I've got a job now. I don't want to be great or famous. Writing fascinates me. I just want to grow and do different things and write the best books I can - and if I do that, I'll be well out of trouble forever."