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BookBrowse Reviews The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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The Sellout

by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty X
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 304 pages

    Mar 2016, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court.

Paul Beatty's The Sellout was one of those books that flew somewhat under the radar when it was originally published in 2015. Sure, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction that year, and it turned up on more than one year-end "best of" list. But it wasn't until this brash, hilarious, deeply satirical, profoundly American novel became the first work by an American author to win the Man Booker Prize that a wider audience – myself included – finally sat up and took notice. And a good thing, too, because hiding amid Beatty's audacious, discomfiting premise is one of the most important novels about race, specifically about being black, written in quite some time.

After I finished reading the twenty-five-page prologue to The Sellout, I turned to my husband and said, "I'm exhausted!" Beatty's language is so energetic, so assertive and fast-paced, the ideas he's presenting so borderline outrageous, the prose so hilarious and robust simultaneously, that reading the opening prologue felt like watching a standup set by Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle, if those comedians also had a penchant for throwing in Latin phrases and extended critiques of the Constitution and the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, in fact, is the setting for both the prologue and the conclusion to Beatty's novel. At first, we don't know precisely what offenses have landed the narrator in this position, only that he seems to relish the opportunity to stand alongside Dred Scott and Plessy vs. Ferguson in the long line of the Supreme Court's history of adjudicating matters of race.

After that breakneck prologue, the narrative slows down (just a bit!) and also goes back in time, to his childhood in fictional Dickens, California, where he has a rather… unconventional childhood at the hands of his single father, a self-styled sociologist who recapitulates landmark psychological experiments and case studies, but with a distinctly racial twist:

When I was seven months, Pops placed objects like toy police cars, cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and a copy of The Economist in my bassinet, but instead of conditioning me with a deafening clang, I learned to be afraid of the presented stimuli because they were accompanied by him taking out the family .38 Special and firing several window-rattling rounds into the ceiling, while shouting, 'Nigger, go back to Africa!' loud enough to make himself heard over the quadraphonic console stereo blasting 'Sweet Home Alabama' in the living room.

Unsurprisingly, the narrator grows up with (to put it mildly) complicated feelings about race, family, and identity, not to mention an ambivalent relationship with his hometown, an agrarian ghetto outside Los Angeles.

After his father is killed in a police shooting, the narrator becomes adrift, wondering about the meaning of his father's last words: "You don't know who my son is." For he, of course, doesn't know who he is, let alone what his aim in life should be. But after Dickens's celebrity resident Hominy Jenkins (a lesser-known actor from Our Gang, See Beyond the Book) begs the narrator to make him his slave, and after the narrator discovers that the state of California has, due to its embarrassing reputation for backwardness and violence, expunged Dickens from the map, he starts to wonder whether a truly scandalous approach – a throwback to the days of segregated schools and buses – might be a way not only to restore Dickens to the landscape but maybe even change it for the better, all the while (finally) becoming a credit to his race.

The Sellout is the kind of book that can elicit deep feelings of discomfort and even shame, not only because of its near-constant use of racial epithets, but also due to its provocative exploration of nearly every stereotype of black history, culture, and appropriation you could name. Beatty's book is the most effective form of satire, forcing readers to confront their own and society's prejudices despite (or maybe because of) the absurd lens with which he magnifies and distorts them. Although not all of Beatty's jokes are race-based ("The meetings consisted mostly of the members who showed up every other week arguing with the ones who came every other month about what exactly 'bimonthly' means"), many are, and consequently the reader's exuberance and self-examination go hand-in-hand.

Beatty's novel feels irreverent, over-the-top, but never so much so that it loses its thoughtfulness or its heart. "Who am I? And how may I become myself?" are questions repeated several times in the novel, questions that remind readers repeatedly of the universality behind the narrator's story, despite its specific circumstances and its audacious veneer. Even though The Sellout is uniquely American, steeped in the painful history and ongoing discord that characterize race relations here, perhaps this universality is part of what the Man Booker Prize judges recognized and rightly rewarded.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review first ran in the January 18, 2017 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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