‘Be it Ancient Rome or modern-day America, you’re either citizen or slave. Lion or Jew. Guilty or innocent. Comfortable or uncomfortable.’
When I first began reading this Man Booker winning novel by Paul Beatty, I was very much uncomfortable. I didn’t know if I was allowed to laugh and I was worried how I would even begin to approach a review. I am not an African-American nor do I have any knowledge of the day-to-day experience of life in America except from what I see on television or in the news. But I do live in a world that is ridiculously politically correct and easy to become controversial in. It is this world that Beatty attacks the most in this fantastic novel. By the end of the book, Beatty had me hanging on to his every word and I truly was in love with this marvellous piece of work. Huge credit must go to the author for welcoming readers such as myself into this world. Only the most creative of artists could imagine and pull off writing like this and I would hazard a guess that this is why The Sellout took the Man Booker prize this year.
The Sellout is many things. It is a social commentary. It is satire in its purest form. It is darkly comic. It is a rant against the injustices of the world. It is a unique piece of work that both criticises and pokes fun at how we as a human race relate to each other and our ‘differences.’ It is a story packed with hilarity and ridiculous scenarios. It even has a love interest. All of these elements come together to create a final product that is unlike any other book that I have read in the past. In a world where political correctness has gone overboard and there is a protest or injustice at every corner, this book is the perfect antidote.
The story is set in the city of Dickens, an urban agricultural anomaly nestled within the metropolis of greater Los Angeles. The ‘Sellout’ himself, who we only know as Me, grows up to become a successful farmer of fresh fruit and marijuana. This is despite being surrounded by typical gang-related crime and social disadvantages evident at every corner. Me also has the misfortune of growing up under the tutelage of an overbearing father. The opening chapters recount several odd and unfortunate social experiments whereby the father uses his own son as a racial guinea pig.
‘Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I’d have been better off. I wouldn’t have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn’t have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it. Plus, I’m left-handed.’
When Me eventually emerges from his fathers shadow, he initially struggles to come to terms with the concept of becoming his own man in a troubled neighbourhood. Everyone expects him to be the same hard done by, outspoken, racially deprieved man that his father was but Me doesn’t rise to this challenge and thus earns the nickname ‘the Sellout.’ He is not concerned with the petty differences and squabbles that the local Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals have, but instead he is more worried that the entire community of Dickens is in danger of losing an identity of a different kind.
Me has a different idea of how the world works and like all great literary narrators seems to be on the outside looking in. Through a series of unfortunate events, he ends up owning a slave, this being none other than Hominy Jenkins who is the last surviving Little Rascal. Hominy proves to be a slave who refuses to work and demands to be whipped. Me navigates this problem by running up a huge bill at the local BDSM club.
‘They say “pimpin’ ain’t easy.” Well, neither is slaveholdin’. Like children, dogs, dice, and overpromising politicians, and apparently prostitutes, slaves don’t do what you tell them to do. And when your eighty-some-odd-year-old black thrall has maybe fifteen good minutes of work in him a day and enjoys the shit out of being punished, you don’t get many of the plantation perks you see in the movies either. No woe is me, “Go Down Moses” field singing. No pillowy soft black breasts to nuzzle up to. No feather dusters. No one says “by ‘n’ by.” No fancy dinners replete with candelabra and endless helpings of glazed ham, heaping spoonfuls of mashed potatoes, and the healthiest-looking greens known to mankind. I never got to experience any of that unquestioned trust between master and bondman. I just owned a wizened old black man who knew only one thing – his place.’
In some ways, history repeats itself in the novel as it seems that Me regards Homily’s slavery to be his own successful social experiment. This inspires him to become a ‘social pyromaniac.‘ He begins by reversing Rosa Park’s legacy and reintroducing white-only seating on buses, then he re-segregates the local school. Instead of destroying Dickens, these experiments seem to galvanise the community and soon everything becomes a target for reverse change.
‘I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.’
Beatty’s humour is cutting and leaves no stone unturned. Many times, I found myself highlighting comments and passages as I read. In fact, I had to stop doing this because there were so many. Beatty has a surreal turn of phrase that he exploits to no end throughout this book. When a character gets in touch with his artistic side he feels like ‘Michelangelo staring at the Sistine Chapel after four years of hard labor, like Banksy after spending six days searching the Internet for ideas to steal and three minutes of sidewalk vandalism to execute them.’ He remarks that when it comes to cars ‘Jaguar model names sound like rockets: XJ-S, XJS, E-Type. Hondas sound like cars designed by pacifists and humanitarian diplomats. The Accord, Civic, Insight.’ No one is safe from psychologists to politician Condoleezza Rice to author Dave Eggers and his ‘do-gooder condescension.’
Further hard-hitting observations are blunted with offbeat humour. ‘But if you really think about it, the only thing you absolutely never see in car commericials isn’t Jewish people, homosexuals, or urban Negroes, it’s traffic.’ There is a hilarious riff on how black people in literature have ‘honey-coloured’ or ‘dark-chocolate’ skin in text.
‘How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-coloured, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having-books?’
The whole point of Beatty’s book is to attack the idealistic notion of integration and a world free of discrimination. The horrible history of segregation is held up as a relic from the past when in fact schools today are still ‘segregated and re-segregated many times over, maybe not by colour, but certainly by reading level and behaviour problem.’ Slavery is condemned as the ultimate abuse of human rights but what about the ‘generations of uncompensated interns.’ Homily Jones laments that ‘true freedom is having the choice to be a slave.’ In particular, Beatty singles out characters with social groups who constantly play up and even perversely enjoy discrimination against themselves. Many of these personalities end up making fortunes off this attitudes as so-called social leaders and ironically cut themselves off from the very thing that they are fighting for. They want to be profoundly authentic but first chance they get they move into the richest part of town.
To cap off this remarkable work, Beatty writes a simple yet powerful epilogue that references Barack Obama’s rise to power. For me, this summaries the essence of the book in a few simple paragraphs. If more authors wrote books like this, important conversations could be opened up in a more proactive and positive tone. This is a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of the modern world that we live in. It is admirable that in a world that resembles a politically correct minefield, Paul Beatty does not put a foot wrong from start to finish.
‘You can’t force integration, boy. The people who want to integrate will integrate.’
Would I recommend this book to a friend?
Yes. If you like to read something different, this is for you. If you are a Man Booker fan, this is for you. If you like Michael Moore films or comedy shows that poke fun at the quirks of the modern world, this is for you. This book is an important read about acceptance
- The N-word is used 180 times in this book. The author references Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn use of the same word 221 times in a book which is upheld as a classic of our time.
- Classic cartoons and programmes such as The Little Rascals come in for a lot of slack in this novel as examples of casual racism in popular culture.
- Many times while reading this book I found myself cross referencing facts and comments by the author. Most of them turned out to be true. The Curse of The Little Rascals shocked me the most!
- In the lead up to this year’s Man Booker prize announcement, sales figures, critics and popular opinion clamoured for a Scottish winner in the form of His Bloody Project. When The Sellout was announced as the winner, it was the first time that an American writer had ever won the prestigious prize. Having had read both books, I can concur that The Sellout is a worthy winner because it epitomises what the Man Booker prize is all about. My experience of previous winners is that they are unique and even game-changing reads. The use of allegory in Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi or Marlon James’ use of the vernacular in A Brief History of Seven Killings opened new doors for their readers. Paul Beatty’s use of satire has a similar effect here and is unlike anything else that I have read. This is a book that will make you think and approach discrimination in society in different way.
- Read my review of His Bloody Project here
- Also, read about my other Man Booker experiences here