The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

>> Sunday, August 28, 2016

TITLE: The Sellout
AUTHOR: Paul Beatty

COPYRIGHT: 2015
PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: None

A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty's The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
Another of my Man Booker reads.

The Sellout is satirical exploration of race in a supposedly post-racial USA. The plot, such as it is, involves the narrator's efforts to bring back the city of Dickens, a poor suburb of LA wiped off the maps by city planners too embarrassed by it to acknowledge its existence. So how will he do it? Why, by bringing back segregation and slavery!

The plot doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's not really meant to. Because the plot is not the point here. It's simply a backdrop for what's basically (and I'm totally stealing this from several amazon reviewers) an extended standup routine.

And it's great standup. The humour is ceaseless, with devastating one-liners and images coming fast and keeping coming. It's not the kind of humour that makes you laugh-out-loud, but the kind that makes you wince, because it's a bit too true. Beatty creates a fully-realised world, populated by characters who feel real even when they accept the absurdist occurrences Beatty throws at them with complete naturalness.

My only "issue" is that this is very much a book about the US experience of race, so at certain times I felt that I was missing some of the references (this book is so dense with meaning that I could very well believe that every single word and image choice is chosen for a very particular reason). But I got enough that the book worked perfectly well for me, anyway.

I should also mention that I listened to this one on audio, which might well be the best way to read it. The narrator, Prentice Onayemi, is fantastic, and the audio emphasises the "standup" element.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.

2 comments:

Darlynne,  16 January 2017 at 16:08  

I had to come back and tell you how much I loved this book. It was seriously uncomfortable for this middle-aged white woman who recognizes the privilege that defines her very existence and I think everyone should read it.

The question I'm left with: When are people of color ever able to be just people in a world defined and perpetuated by, well, people like me? I don't mean to imply that Beatty's world view is the only accurate one, but his story is definitely eye-opening and ... gah, I can't even find the right words. Thank you for bringing THE SELLOUT to my attention. These images and ideas aren't going away any time soon.

Rosario 13 March 2017 at 07:40  

Hi Darlynne: Sorry it's taken me so long to reply (comments on old posts are automatically placed on moderation, as they tend to get spammed a lot, and I completely forgot to check the "comments in moderation" folder the last couple of months!). Anyway, I'm so glad you loved the book. It's such an interesting question! I think part of the privilege of being white is being able to ignore race, being able to say "Oh, race doesn't matter to me, we're all just people". Because if you're not white, you don't get to do that. The Sellout is great at showing how that feels, and for those of us who are white (I'm considered to be non-white here in the UK, but I was right in the middle of what's considered white in Uruguay, where I spent the first 30 years of my life, so I count myself in that category) it's shocking how oppressive that can feel.

For once, the Man Booker jury made the right choice! :)

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