Review: Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”

Winning the Man Booker Award (the first American to do so) for The Sellout, Paul Beatty stated, “I hate writing…. This is a hard book…. It was hard for me to write, I know it’s hard to read.” I concur with the last remark—it’s a slog, which may be why I didn’t review the novel when it was published a year ago. I didn’t think it was my kind of book (full of virtually every negative stereotype of black people I’ve ever heard of, and then some), but after the award I thought I’d better give it a try. And, yes, I repeat, it’s difficult to read, but that’s true of many writers, so that shouldn’t be a deterrent. The novel is especially difficult at a linguistic level that I’ll get to later, but it’s also confusing because of its plotless satirical patina. Always, then, hard to determine where the story is going. Nor does that mean that your guffaws will not be genuine.

As the novel begins, the narrator (known to his friends as “The Sellout”) is awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court concerning the charges against him that he’s guilty of owning a slave. He’s black; the setting is contemporary; the lower courts haven’t known what to do with him, especially when it becomes clear that he’s been implementing racial segregation in the town near Los Angeles, where he grew up. That town is named Dickens, and it disappeared sometime in the recent past because of the embarrassment of its population (largely black) and its policies. But Sellout has been attempting to push the hot button of racism in the United States and rub it in everyone’s faces. Or, as he says, “I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”

Remember those naive remarks after Obama’s inauguration that a black president meant that racism in the United States had had been excised—gone with a poof by having a black president in the White House? Well, it didn’t take eight years and the most nasty election in the country’s history for Beatty to determine that the opposite selloutwas actually true: with Obama’s inauguration racism became much worse than it was. Think of those Republicans in Congress deciding the same day that they would thwart every program, every plan he tried to implement. They didn’t give a damn then for the country, nor do they today. Racists virtually all of them. Post-racial country, my foot. So Beatty was on to something before most of us were, including other black people with the hope they’d been tossed by Obama’s presence in the White House. Not gunna happen with those white ofays still running things. (In case you think my contempt for these politicians is something less than genuine, think again.)

The narrator’s main problem may be that his father (a black professor of behavioral psychology at a third-rate university) used his son for many of his experiments, putting him in humiliating (and racial) situations. His father home-schooled him, keeping him isolated from mainstream education. When his father dies, his son is obviously confused about his racial identity. He’s got a small farm in Dickens but the town has disappeared, its name no longer on maps or signs. Still, he’s pretty much self-supporting because of the farm and his one true friend, Hominy Jenkins, “the last surviving member of the Little Rascals, that madcap posse of street urchins who, from the Roaring Twenties until Reagonomics…” acted as a minor hurricane, upsetting whatever environment they entered. Many of those Hal Roach Studios Rascal films were racist, with Hominy typically the butt of the antics. So Hominy has no problem letting Sellout treat him as chattel; it’s more of a joke than anything else. And Sellout who fully understands that racism is just as strong as it’s ever been in the United States decides to push things to the extreme, which means push it into white faces until they choke.

That’s more-or-less the story, but as I said above, the delight 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 (no wonder it was a bear to write): “These are the times that fry one’s souls.” “Forty acres and a fool.”

“Time waits on no man, but niggers wait on anybody with a twenty-five cent tip.”  (Yes, the n- word is here big time.) “One if by Land Cruiser. Two if by C-class Mercedes.” “[The] best man is the woman on the second floor.” “Aversion therapy.”  “I think, therefore I jam.” “General BlackArthur.” “Weapons of mass education.” “George W. Bush, the first coon President.” And my favorite, echoing recent Republican double-speak, “A child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised in a two-parent household than was a baby born after the election of the U.S.A’s first African-American president.” How did we get to such a state? Beatty provides part of an answer. “When folks say, ‘Why can’t we talk about race more honestly?’ What they really mean is ‘Why can’t you niggers be reasonable.’”

A friend asked me if I thought “Black Lives Matter” has made things better or worse. Worse, I responded, just as Black History Month and Black Is Beautiful made things worse. The Bible, Africa, the Civil War, Civil Rights, and the first Black President—all have made things worse. But only for too many White people who still believe that being white equals privilege and acknowledging color in any context scares them shitless.

Paul Beatty: The Sellout
Picador, 289 pp., $16

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.