The Sellout, Paul Beatty, 2015
Paul Beatty reintroduces slavery and segregation in an experimental Californian town, offering a satirical and witty critique of “post-racial” America.
288 pages (Soft cover), Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $10
Rating 4.5/5 (Masterful prose, sharply observant, epically hilarious, haphazard narrative)
My mom saw me reading The Sellout while I was home for Thanksgiving. I bought it after seeing it had won the Man Booker Prize and because I needed something to read on the plane - hence this late review. As I sat in the kitchen finishing the book, she saw me cackling and asked what it was about. Admittedly, I struggled to piece together a proper synopsis. I said something like “Um...this pseudo-house-negro who grew up as his dad’s racial experiment reclaims his town by using ‘reverse racial psychology’ to bring slavery and segregation back. Oh...and his side-kick is a wanna-be-slave slash former Little Rascal named Hominy.”
“Hm,” she nodded, “Kind of like Buckwheat.”
“Yea!” I perked up, not believing that I had missed that obvious pop-culture connection. “Hominy...like Buckwheat.”
My mom laughed a bit, then shook her head, “And on The Little Rascals, they even had a sister named Farina. All the black ones were named like that. After grains...”
Suddenly, I remembered my childhood time spent at Children’s World, a daycare where I spent most days being forced to watch Little Rascals reruns because those were the only VHS tapes that worked. (I also cocked my head a bit. Why in the world were we watching The Little Rascals in 1999?) Anyway, my mom and I went on:
“It’s crazy,” I told her, “I used to watch that when I was six. I didn’t even realize it was racist.”
“Me too,” she said, 47 years old. “We didn’t realize it either.”
I felt like an idiot for two reasons a) I used to really love me some Little Rascals b) I didn’t make the Hominy-Buckwheat connection sooner. I was almost done with the book and it still hadn’t dawned on me. Although I had been a casual forced-fan of The Little Rascals, I still felt like I should have realized Beatty’s allusion much earlier in the book. Then I wondered, does this slow connection make me an idiot, or does it mean that Paul Beatty is really, really great at being subtly insightful? Just for my sake, I’m going to go with the latter.
The synopsis I gave my mother is kind of accurate. The Sellout is an explosive satirical novel with a lot going on. And I mean a lot. At one point, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell are doing the Crip Walk. At another point, someone is finagling with “Empowerpoint” - a black-designed version of PowerPoint, complete with afro-centric fonts. However, it is the “extra-ness” of this book that makes it so excellent. It is Paul Beatty’s willingness to take his pen wherever his eccentric mind goes that makes it so original, so superb. It is not an easily-contained book. One must be willing to follow Beatty on his journey through segregated schools, a radicalized donut shop, some cotton fields, a few bouts of “nigger-whispering” and, finally, the Supreme Court. It is the improbability and ridiculousness of the book that makes it a comical delight. These very qualities also make it sobering and sharply intelligent. At the center of this explosive book is an important question: What if America took off its post-racial mask? Beatty answers this question in staggeringly ingenious and unapologetic ways.
The book's narrator is an unnamed protagonist: an oddly likable and sympathetic black teen whose whole life has literally been defined by race. His father, a self-proclaimed “liberation psychologist” saw his birth as an opportunity to experiment with race and identity. The narrator admits, “I was his Anna Freud, his little case study, and when he wasn’t teaching me how to ride, he was replicating famous social science experiments.” This traumatic upbringing shaped his life and his view of the world. When his dad is killed by the police and his town is wiped off the map, he is forced to carve out an identity and a place for himself. If this sounds ridiculous, that's because it is. The best part about this book is the fact that Beatty writes it so seriously - as if he doesn’t know that the story he’s telling is wildly absurd. It’s that dedication - that odd realism - that makes this supposedly far-fetched tale seem so real.
Paul Beatty is, simply put, a genius. His prose is masterful and refined. His humor is wry and sarcastic, yet effortless. He has this incredibly ability to keep a “straight pencil” while writing hilarious, yet poignant moments like this: “I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalizing that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.” Thankfully, bright moments like this are not at all sparse in The Sellout. Nearly every page of my copy is dog-eared for moments of hilarity and moments of profound insight. This is a book best read in private. Reading it in public prompts the sort of inappropriate laughter that will get you labeled as “unhinged,” at best.
Despite constant lyrical brilliance, the narrative was difficult to follow towards the middle and end of the book. A couple of scenes require rereading in order to ensure the plot’s direction. However, this kind of confusion comes with the territory of writing satire: it’s sometimes hard to keep things straight and narrow.
My mom isn’t much of a reader. Okay, she’s not illiterate. She actually owns a Kindle. But she’s definitely not known to have her head in a book. However, yesterday she texted me asking, “What’s the name of that book you were reading that u said was so funny?” I usually don’t respond to text messages until after 72 hours. You know, for security purposes. But I responded to this one right away, telling her: “The Sellout, by Paul Beatty!” Why did I respond so quickly? Because I love my mom, duh. But no, really. I responded so soon because I want everyone to read this fabulously written book. It is required reading. I want to promote this book as much as I can. If I wasn’t so broke, I’d buy tons of copies and hand them out to strangers on the street. For now, I can only carry it around with me in public while fake re-reading it and laughing ostentatiously - just so passersbys can take note, get jealous and go buy it for themselves. This book is the definition of a must read. It is a complete masterpiece. It is a true feat of satire and a true testament to Paul Beatty’s unique talent as both a writer and a comedian.