The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s fourth novel, is such an outrageous racial satire that I kept asking myself how he got away with it. Not only did he get away with it, he won a National Book Critics Circle Award for it – beating out contenders such as Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno. The novel opens with a prologue set at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. The narrator has been summoned here to defend himself against a grievous but entirely true accusation: that he has reinstituted slavery and segregation in his hometown of Dickens, California. What with his slimy showman of a lawyer and the stash of marijuana he uses to get high before his hearing, it’s clear this character isn’t taking the charges against him very seriously. Then again, Beatty takes very little entirely seriously in this zany, irreverent take on racial politics in America today.

The case is Me v. The United States, and that’s all we ever learn of the protagonist’s name: a surname that seems more like a pronoun. He is who he is: a sort of African-American Everyman. His upbringing is downright peculiar, though. For one thing, Dickens is a ghetto of south Los Angeles that has seemingly regressed a couple of centuries to become an agrarian society. The narrator studied agriculture at university and started growing watermelons and marijuana. He rides a horse and knows enough about animal husbandry to castrate a calf, a skill he demonstrates at a local school’s career day. When he was growing up, his father did dubious social science experiments on him, having him pick cotton while singing Paul Robeson spirituals or ogle a white woman in the South to see what would happen.

The narrator’s father served as the community’s ‘Nigger Whisperer,’ talking black people down from self-destructive behaviour. He also founded the ‘Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals,’ a group of African Americans who meet to discuss racial disparity, though he always worried that Foy Cheshire, who self-publishes politically correct versions of classic literature, was stealing his ideas. When his father is ‘accidentally’ shot by police, the narrator takes the corpse to a Dum Dum Donuts meeting and then buries it in the backyard. The wrongful death settlement buys him his farm. Five years later (the novel’s chronology is complex; it’s best not to think too hard about it) Dickens ceases to exist – the county has revoked its charter.

Two things will put Dickens back on the map. First, Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving cast member of television hit Little Rascals, voluntarily makes himself the narrator’s slave in thanks for cutting him down during an attempted suicide. Together the two reinstitute segregation: Hominy puts up signs in buses giving priority seats at the front to whites, while the narrator proposes segregating the local school.

All the old stereotypes of African Americans are here, many of them represented by Hominy, a ‘stoop-shouldered epitome of obsequiousness’. The plot is downright silly in places, but the shock value keeps you reading. Even so, after the incendiary humour of the first third of the novel, the satire starts to wear a bit thin. I yearned for more of an introspective Bildungsroman, which there are indeed hints of: the narrator’s father instructs him, ‘ask yourself two questions, Who am I? And how may I become myself?’ In a few places he remembers these soul-searching queries and wonders whether what he’s doing is helping him to construct a proper identity.

This reminded me most of Ishmael Reed’s satires and, oddly enough, Julian Barnes’s England, England, which similarly attempts to distil an entire culture and history into a limited space and time. Something about The Sellout has clearly struck a chord in America, and while I’m not sure it will be quite as successful in the UK, I’d recommend it for its perennially relevant questions about racial identity and for audacious lines like these:

‘I understand now that the only time black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief.’

‘Nigger-whispering [he inherits the role from his father] got me out of the house and away from the crops and the animals. I met interesting people and tried to convince them that no matter how much heroin and R. Kelly they had in their systems, they absolutely could not fly.’

When a white bitch got problems, she’s a damsel in distress! When a black bitch got problems, she’s a welfare cheat and a burden on society. How come you never see any black damsels? Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your weave!’

Amid the laughs, you still get a sense of how important it is to Beatty that race remain a topic for public discussion. An exchange the narrator has with a police officer could just as easily describe the author’s purpose: ‘It’s illegal to yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?’ / ‘It is.’ / ‘Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.’ No whisper, this, but a brazen shout.

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An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the US and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.

Paul Beatty, The Sellout (Oneworld: London, 2016). 978-1786070159, 291 pp., paperback.

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