“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.”
Hackles up, right? But this book won the Booker Prize, so remember that opening line. It will be handy at Quiz Night.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout continues in this sarcastic, racist vein, blitzing through page after page of flippant, un-PC banter to the last chapter, which is appropriately titled “Unmitigated Blackness”. That pretty much sums up the book. Personally I believe with every generation we are moving towards a “post-racist” world – obviously way too slowly for Beatty and I accept that anger, but will this diatribe help?
If you’re a sensitive PC whitey, prepare for an uncomfortable read.
Here’s my caveat though: I read the The Sellout because the writing is brilliant. I squirmed for about 30 pages. Then, like five minutes into a Shakespearean play, I clicked, and began to enjoy the wit behind the colloquialisms and pop-culture language. Although I never laughed out loud (you probably need to be American for that) I was amused by the stand-up comedy style gags. Bear with it – if you’re struggling to make it past the prologue, soothe your hackles, go with the super-quick flow, allow yourself to laugh.
I found myself rooting for the narrator, a damaged (his father hog-ties him to teach him disadvantage), intellectual farmer who reinstates slavery and segregates his town. Why? He finds people are better behaved. It brings a sense of community. He thinks it’s worth a try. He’s a good man, I felt for his tribulations.
The supporting characters are sharp and larger than life: his father a maniac sociologist with a “doo-wop base deep” voice who terrifies his son in intellectual debate and uses him as a subject in his social experiments – if he publicly thrashes the boy, will anyone come to his aid? (Um, no. Turns out the bystander effect has a twist in the black community, they join in the thrashing). But his father is also a “nigger whisperer” – just as it sounds, he coxes people back from the edge.
Fading TV personality Foy Cheshire, (“Foy was no tree of knowledge, at most he was a bush of opinion,”) rewrites classics: Huckleberry Finn is rearranged with the word “nigger” changed to “warrior” and “slave” to “dark skinned volunteer.” Which got me thinking I might have enjoyed The Sellout more if “nigger” was replaced by “black,” throughout, but there I go again, missing the point.
There is an aged actor, Hominy, who volunteers for slavery, a group of black intellectuals who meet at Dum Dum Donuts, the one-true-love bus driver Marpessa who is married to a gangsta rapper. All fully formed and sprouting their racist opinions on each page.
The story line is just a platform for the characters and the gags: the town name of Dickens is removed from the map and our narrator gets it reinstated; he goes to the High Court for slave owning. And through it all the characters weave and swear and get themselves in and out of ludicrous situations.
Towards the end Paul Beatty explains the reason why I found this book is so difficult to read. A black comedian at Dum Dum Donuts berates a white couple for laughing at his jokes: “What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at?” And: “Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!”
Beatty has written a brilliant book, but racially segregated to such an extent that I’m afraid I have to agree with the comedian. This shit ain’t for me.