The Sellout

by Paul Beatty

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

Who is this author?

He first gained recognition as a poet in 1990, having been crowned the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Café, and then became a successful novelist. Paul Beatty grew up in West Los Angeles and now lives in New York City. He earned an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in psychology from Boston University. His previous novels are Slumberland, Tuff, and The White Boy Shuffle and his and two poetry collections are Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce. He edited Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, whose slyly provocative cover is a smiley face made from a curved slice of watermelon rind.

What is this book about?

It doesn’t get much more politically incorrect or comically outrageous than this: a young black urban farmer the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, just south of L.A. but no longer on any map, grows watermelons and weed, had a complicated childhood with a weird father and concocts a plan to put his town back on the map by owning a slave and segregating the local high school, which transgressions eventually land him a reckoning with the Supreme Court. You can’t make this stuff up, but Paul Beatty can, in a wildly satirical novel that challenges the Constitution, father-son relationships, the civil rights movement and other sacred cattle of American life. The narrator, nicknamed The Sellout later in the story, grows up the subject of racially-fraught psychological experiments staged by his sociologist father, believing it is all for a memoir that will make the struggling family solvent. But there is no memoir: just a father killed by the cops and a bill for a drive-through funeral. And the town’s most famous resident, the  fictional Hominy Jenkins, who is the last of the nonfictional Little Rascals of movie fame, a man who wants to be, or play, The Sellout’s slave. If this sounds like exceptionally challenging satire, you’re on the right track.

Why you’ll like it:

The consensus among reviewers – and this book was reviewed by the best – is that The Sellout is outrageously, side-splitting funny, but also a vehicle for some pretty profound analysis of race relations in America. Beatty spares no one and nothing: for example, he calls Black History Month an “onslaught of disingenuous pride and niche marketing.”

He told the Paris Review that he questions the wisdom of advising someone to “be yourself”: “Most people are like, Be yourself, that’s enough—but in Slumberland there’s a line where the narrator decided he’s not going to tell anyone to “be themselves,” because most times when people are themselves they act like assholes. Why would I encourage that? It’s an idea I play with and try to reshape from book to book, about our individual responsibility and culpability. There’s something in the shift from White Boy Shuffle to Slumberland to The Sellout that shows a progression, but it’s the kind of progression that I completely believe in—things change but remain the same.”

But Beatty resists calling his book satire: “In my head it would limit what I could do, how I could write about something. I’m just writing. Some of it’s funny. I’m surprised that everybody keeps calling this a comic novel. I mean, I get it. But it’s an easy way not to talk about anything else. I would better understand it if they talked about it in a hyphenated way, to talk about it as a tragicomic novel, even. There’s comedy in the book, but there’s a bunch of other stuff in there, too. It’s easy just to hide behind the humor, and then you don’t have to talk about anything else. But I definitely don’t think of myself as a satirist. I mean, what is satire? Do you remember that New Yorker cover that everyone was saying was satire? Barack and Michelle fist-bumping? That’s not satire to me. It was just a commentary. Just poking fun at somebody doesn’t make something satire. It’s a word everyone throws around a lot. I’m not sure how I define it.”

What others are saying:

In The New York Times , Dwight Garner writes: “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. This is where Mr. Beatty shines…in this landmark and deeply aware comic novel.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “. . . a droll, 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.”

“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,” says Booklist’s starred review.’

A starred Kirkus Review says: “The provocative author 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.”

NPR says: “The Sellout is a comic masterpiece, but it’s much more than just that — it’s one of the smartest and most honest reflections on race and identity in America in a very long time, written by an author who truly understands what it means to talk about the history of the country. “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book — that we can turn the page and move … on,” the narrator muses. “But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

The Nation says: “Yet even as it shreds through the sentimental, The Sellout is more mature and affecting than Beatty’s previous novels. In its last pages, it becomes something more than the sum of its searing satirical indictments of contemporary mores, racial and otherwise. Ducking and weaving under the pummel of Don Rickles punch lines, one discovers, among other things, a loving portrait of a father and son, and their reconciliation of sorts; a love letter to the city of Los Angeles; indelible portraits of the Supreme Court justices; purple-hazed Pynchonesque set pieces, including something of an ode to the Pacific Coast Highway; notes toward a semi-serious theory of “unmitigated blackness,” matched with a profound criticism of same; and finally, a resounding refusal of all self-satisfied definitions and patented claims on the concept of race and proper racial belonging.”

When is it available?

It’s at the Albany and Mark Twain branches of the Hartford Public Library.

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