The Sellout

By Paul Beatty

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Paul Beatty was a poet back in 1990, when he became the first Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Café, which got him a book deal for his first poetry collection. He went on to publish a second collection and three novels — Slumberland, Tuff and The White Boy Shuffle—before his latest, The Sellout, which is garnering raves. His biting humor, which demolishes racial stereotypes and stereotypical thinking about race, is earning him comparisons to the great black standup satirists of our time, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle.

What is this book about?

The surest way to kill a joke is to dissect it, but here goes: This novel, set in a fictional area on the edge of southern Los Angeles, is about a farmer who grows artisanal watermelons and marijuana (one type is called Anglophobia) and for complicated reasons, attempts to bring back slavery and a segregated school. Raised by an unhinged sociologist who carries out weird psychological experiments on the boy and is later killed by police during a routine traffic stop (dark humor that is not so funny today, in light of Ferguson and Baltimore), the son inherits Dad’s penchant for crazy social science experiments and somehow winds up “owning” elderly Hominy Jenkins, a fictional character who claims to have understudied Buckwheat on The Little Rascals and insists on becoming the young farmer’s slave. One of Hominy’s show biz insights: “You know, massa, Bugs Bunny wasn’t nothing but Br’er Rabbit with a better agent.” The farmer winds up explaining things to the Supreme Court, and readers wind up with a supremely funny and biting novel.

Why you’ll like it:

Anyone who can write the way Pryor, Rock and Chapelle  can (or could) riff deserves your attention. At this moment in American history, when the country is inflamed by the killing of unarmed black men by white police, leading to riots, looting and an outpouring of gassy pontificating by pundits of the right and the left, it is refreshing, if somewhat alarming, to read a book that manages to speak clearly about racism yet still makes the story at hand hilarious.

Here is some of what Dwight Garner said about Beatty’s book in The New York Times:  “Broad satirical vistas are not so hard for a novelist to sketch. What’s hard is the close-up work, the bolt-by-bolt driving home of your thoughts and your sensibility. This is where Mr. Beatty shines.

Almost the entirety of black American culture and stereotypes are carved up under this novel’s microscope: Tiger Woods, Clarence Thomas (given a memorable line), Oreo cookies, fairy tales (“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your weave!”), Bill Cosby, cotton picking, penis size, Saturday morning cartoons, George Washington Carver, lawn jockeys, Mike Tyson. The “do-gooder condescension” of Dave Eggers comes in for a hazing. The American liberal agenda is folded into origami.”

What others are saying:

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “The provocative author of The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Slumberland (2008) is back with his most penetratingly satirical novel yet. Beatty has never been afraid to stir the pot when it comes to racial and socioeconomic issues, and his latest is no different. In fact, this novel is his most incendiary, and readers unprepared for streams of racial slurs (and hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable) in the service of satire should take a pass. The protagonist lives in Dickens, “a ghetto community” in Los Angeles, and works the land in an area called “The Farms,” where he grows vegetables, raises small livestock and smokes a ton of “good weed.” After being raised by a controversial sociologist father who subjected him to all manner of psychological and social experiments, the narrator is both intellectually gifted and extremely street-wise. When Dickens is removed from the map of California, he goes on a quest to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, who hangs around the neighborhood regaling everyone with tales of the ridiculously racist skits he used to perform with the rest of the gang. It’s clear that Hominy has more than a few screws loose, and he volunteers to serve as the narrator’s slave—yes, slave—on his journey. Another part of the narrator’s plan involves segregating the local school so that it allows only black, Latino and other nonwhite students. Eventually, he faces criminal charges and appears in front of the Supreme Court in what becomes “the latest in a long line of landmark race-related cases.” Readers turned off by excessive use of the N-word or those who are easily offended by stereotypes may find the book tough going, but fans of satire and blatantly honest—and often laugh-out-loud funny—discussions of race and class will be rewarded on each page. Beatty never backs down, and readers are the beneficiaries. Another daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.”

The Barnes & Noble Review says: “The Sellout is narrated by a young black man who owns a slave, albeit entirely against his will; who reestablishes segregation in his Los Angeles ‘hood; and who uses the word nigger, both in his exposition and in his own speech, with a frequency that must match or exceed Twain’s in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (I didn’t keep count, but my money is on “exceed.”) Its repertoire of racial stereotypes is so exhaustive that some readers may not even recognize or understand all of them, and others may not want to admit they do.

So, graduates of Sensitivity Training are forewarned: This is an offensive book. It is also a timely, phantasmagoric, and deliriously funny look at American race relations in the twenty-first century. As a starting point for that “national conversation on race” Americans keep meaning to have, The Sellout is perhaps an unlikely candidate, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an ideal one.”

The New York Times  review by Dwight Garner also says:  “The first 100 pages of…The Sellout are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade. I gave up underlining the killer bits because my arm began to hurt. “Badass” is not the most precise critical term. What I mean is that the first third of The Sellout reads like the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility. Mr. Beatty impastos every line, in ways that recall writers like Ishmael Reed, with shifting densities of racial and political meaning. The jokes come up through your spleen…Broad satirical vistas are not so hard for a novelist to sketch. What’s hard is the close-up work, the bolt-by-bolt driving home of your thoughts and your sensibility…in this landmark and deeply aware comic novel.

In The New York Times Book Review, Kevin Young writes:  “I thought often of the 1990s appointment TV In Living Color when reading the novel; Beatty takes the same delight in tearing down the sacred, not so much airing dirty laundry as soiling it in front of you…From its title on, The Sellout so clearly and gleefully means to offend that any offense taken suggests we aren’t as comfortable with race or ourselves as we wish to be…Beatty’s novel breaks open the private jokes and secrets of blackness…in a way that feels powerful and profane and that manages not to be escapist.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Beatty’s satirical latest, biting look at racism in modern America. At the novel’s opening, its narrator, a black farmer whose last name is Me, has been hauled before the Supreme Court for keeping a slave and reinstituting racial segregation in Dickens, an inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles inexplicably zoned for agrarian use. When Dickens is erased from the map by gentrification, Me hatches a modest proposal to bring it back by segregating the local school. While his logic may be skewed, there is a perverse method in his madness; he is aided by Hominy, a former child star from The Little Rascals, who insists that Me take him as his slave. Beatty gleefully catalogues offensive racial stereotypes but also reaches further, questioning what exactly constitutes black identity in America. Wildly funny but deadly serious, Beatty’s caper is populated by outrageous caricatures, and its damning social critique carries the day.”

Booklist’s starred review says:  “Beatty, author of the deservedly highly praised The White Boy Shuffle (1996), here outdoes himself and possibly everybody else in a send-up of race, popular culture, and politics in today’s America . . . Beatty hits on all cylinders in a darkly funny, dead-on-target, elegantly written satire . . . [The Sellout] is frequently laugh-out-loud funny and, in the way of the great ones, profoundly thought provoking. A major contribution.”

When is it available?

The Albany and Mark Twain branches of the Hartford Public Library have copies of this book.

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