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Friday, January 06, 2017

The Sellout

Paul Beatty's The Sellout won the National Books Critic Circles Award and the Mann Booker Prize (the first American to do so) with this raucous racial satire. I found the writing so dazzling that I recommend it just for the belly laughs, though I found the plot, and indeed the author's message, to be obfuscated.

From the opening line, "This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything," to the very end we are treated to such dexterity with language that I can't possibly quote every line that made me laugh. Beatty has all sorts of thing to say about individual things, like Washington, D.C.: "with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms)" or L.A.: "If New York is the City That Never Sleeps, then Los Angeles is the City That’s Always Passed Out on the Couch."

The narrator of the book (we only know his last name is Me) has a case before the Supreme Court, and the book flashes back to tell us what he's been charged with. This is unclearly laid out, but apparently includes bringing back his home town of Dickens, California, which had disappeared from the map, and making it segregated. He also has kept a slave, the last living Little Rascal, called Hominy: "But he had the misfortune of being born in Dickens, California, and in America Hominy is no source of pride: he’s a Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African-American legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos ’n’ Andy, Dave Chappelle’s meltdown, and people who say “Valentime’s Day.”"

At a certain point I gave up on following the plot, or lack of one. The narrator is in love with a sassy bus driver, who at one point deserts her route and takes the bus into the Pacific Ocean, and had a father who was an intellectual who seemed to take relish in pointing out the racist nature of America before being gunned down by police. There is also a villainous character named Foy Cheshire, who hosts a black-oriented TV talk show (I kept thinking of Tony Brown's Journal) who is disgusted with the narrator, and calls him "the Sellout."

Really The Sellout is a long riff on the black experience in America. The funniest stuff is about Hominy and the Little Rascals. Beatty points out the curse of many Rascals, who died young, and makes up some episodes that showcase racist attitudes, such as Hominy being used as bait for sharks. I actually think the Little Rascals were not that racist, as it was perhaps the only entertainment of the day that showed black and white kids playing together.

The Sellout is very funny, but also has some serious anger in it. Beatty holds no prisoners, and takes no sides, lambasting almost all races. The narrator has serious issues with his father, but learned important things from him: "A long time ago, my father taught me that whenever you see a question on the cover of a news magazine, the answer is always “No,” because the editorial staff knows that questions with “Yes” answers would, like graphic cigarette warnings and close-ups of pus-oozing genitalia that tend not to deter but encourage smoking and unsafe sex, scare the reader off."

But finally he decides, "Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I’d have been better off. I wouldn’t have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn’t have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it. Plus, I’m left-handed."

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