by Paul Beatty
“The wretched of the Earth, he calls us. People too poor to afford cable and too stupid to know that they aren’t missing anything.” ― Paul Beatty, The Sellout
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, is an African-American novel of satire on race relations in the United States. The story is told by an unnamed, black narrator who is coming before the Supreme Court on charges of slave holding and re-instituting segregation. The narrator recounts to the Supreme Court the events that brought him to the present time.
Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens - on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles - the narrator 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 have 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.
Fueled 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.
After a while the novel began, for this reader, to become extremely tiresome to the point of utter splenetic prose. What plot there was lacked sufficient direction and a sense of purpose. This resulted from repetition of a few basic themes established very early on. At times it even felt like it had degenerated into a series of loosely connected rants and personal grievances in the form of chapters. It became a very trying read.
The writing began with a certain authority; it was compelling and convincing, however as the narrative progressed it did not pick up any momentum but lingered on similar ideas and stayed very stationary. Some of the comic moments seemed forced as the narrator repeated themes over and again. The Sellout won The Man Booker Prize in 2016 and despite my acherontic experience reading the book I can see why. It is a very timely piece, addressing many of the problems blacks face in a country that has supposedly moved on from its original sin of slavery. Segregation has ended, racism is officially at an all-time low, but the issues remain.
That’s more-or-less the story, but for this reader the best aspect of The Sellout is Beatty’s language, sentence-by-sentence, even word-by-word, instead of the plot. There are literally hundreds of puns, non-sequiturs, and squeaky analogies, sometimes literally piled up on top of one another: “These are the times that fry one’s souls.” “Forty acres and a fool.” In spite of that, the satirical style in which it was told offset much of what the book attempted to do. The satire in this novel is savage and the black idiom is difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with it. I can only recommend this novel to those readers who are ready for a difficult reading experience that may or may not be worth the trip. It was not for me.