The Sellout tells of the adventure of its African-American main protagonist – “Bonbon” for his on-off girlfriend and acquaintances, “Sellout” for some members of his community not approving of his life choices – or “Me”, which is his last name, for the state of California that is suing him at the time of the book’s opening.
Bonbon grows up in Dickens, a ghetto on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the subject of his father’s social experiments. When the professor of psychology is not busy using his son as a pawn in his research, he moonlights as the town’s ‘whisperer’, talking its suicidal members back into a cheerier vision of life; and is also the respected host to the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, which rallies over stale donuts and has heated conversations about the place of African-Americans in today’s America. He dies a few years later – shot by the police – and Bonbon, finally freed to make his own decisions, starts a new life as a farmer, producing the best fruit and vegetable in town as well as a large amount of weed.
Peer pressured to follow in his father’s footsteps as the whisperer, he saves Hominy, an ageing child actor who attempts suicide as he can’t get over his loss of fame, can’t forget the outrageously racist “Little Rascals” movies in which he used to star and can’t bear being the cast’s only survivor. Reconciled with life, Hominy volunteers as Bonbon’s slave. Aside from re-instigating slavery, Bonbon also decides to resuscitate Dickens after it was removed from the map and re-segregate the local school in a bid to get the levels to improve.
Me’s peregrinations take us through the life of a black California and introduce us to an array of characters, each as quirky as the next. The father who uses his son as his subject for his social experiments – and who represents the town’s intellect – the ageing actor repurposing himself as a slave, the pregnant bus driver who is Hominy’s on/off girlfriend but married to another, the schoolteacher who accepts to segregate the school for the sake of education and the new head of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, an academic who rewrites Huckleberry Finn replacing the “n-word’” with “warrior”, and “slave” with “dark-skinned volunteer” and renames classics, such as “The Great Blacksby”.
The quirkiness of Me’s adventures is reminiscent of some of the 20th-century’s greats – Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces and its grotesque protagonist, or Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and its outsiders. The book almost reads like a collection of anecdotes, with each chapter bringing in a different plot, a different angle, a new character, all contributing to the author’s vision of the society he depicts.
The Sellout is ultimately a virulent denunciation of the lure of Obama’s post-racial America. Beatty’s lacerating cynicism combined with its protagonist’s outrageous actions – such as placing “whites only” stickers in a bus as a present for his slave – is a winning combination to generate laughter.
However, this laughter is often tainted with the discomfort associated with being thrown at incessant racial stereotypes, R-rated slurs (the N-word is mentioned probably even more times than the F-word in the Big Lebowski) and wincingly candid portrayals of a dysfunctional America
It feels like being endlessly kicked and tickled with no respite for thought. It almost is a shame that The Sellout’s narrative is so compact as it makes it less easy to retain everything, to remember the so many brilliant one liners, to remove the superfluous to get to the book’s real purpose.
Reading Paul Beatty is like being taken for a helmet-free motorcycle ride at the edge of a cliff. It’s dangerous, head spinning, exhilarating, sometimes you struggle not to close your eyes, and you have to hold on tight. The road is long and sinuous as it takes Beatty 24 chapters to get to recap the events exposed in its prologue and finally explain what Me is in court for. Those 24 chapters full of digressions, though making The Sellout a difficult read, do constitute the essence of the book and the bad-ass rhythmic prose, full of analogies, quotes and jokes – the essence of Beatty himself.
A great read. Not for the faint-hearted as it requires mental strength, stamina and the willingness to have perspective.
Paul Beatty was born in California in 1962 and graduated in 1980. He’s the author of two poetry volumes, Big Bank Take Little Bank (1990) and Joker, Joker, Deuce (1994). His first novel, The White Boy Shuffle was published in 1996. He subsequently wrote Tuff (2000) and Slumberland. The Sellout was published in 2016 and received the Man Booker price, attributed for the first time to a writer from the US.
The Sellout was published by ONEWORLD Publications on 13th September 2016.
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Review by Barbara Fieschi-Jones
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