The Sellout | Paul Beatty
This is an outrageous book that sees race politics in the United States with extreme clarity.
I’ll be honest. I’m not sure I really understood this book. Most of the comedy, which relies on satirising today’s ‘post-racial’ United States is so contextual and nuanced that I think much of it flew over my head. A lot of it seems like one big inside joke. I did recognise that it was deeply controversial but as someone who is not from the US, it didn’t hit home as much as I think it was intended to. However, the parts I did understand were powerful. When reading this book, you get the sense that you are invited to be a part of a movement: the book in no way feels like an isolated bit of observational fiction.
Many satires, especially those related to race and identity, only punch up as per the ‘rule’ of comedy. Beatty punches left, right, up and down without any discrimination, calling out everyone’s bluff and exposing everyone’s flaws. Literally everyone and everything form the butt of the narrator’s jokes.
The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit
The long-winded title above is an example of Foy’s attempt at making classic books black-friendly. He is the leader of the Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals, an oxymoronic name that is heavy-handed in its humour (a lot of Beatty’s comedy in very in-your-face). These are a group of “weren****rs” who meet in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, California.
Foy is an interesting character because he raises an important question: how should people deal with the US’s racist history? Foy’s solution is erasure. He edits his version of Huckleberry Finn so that the ‘n-word’ is replaced with ‘warrior’ and ‘slave’ is replaced with ‘dark-skinned volunteer’. Beatty, through his narrator, challenges whether this is the right thing to do. While munching on Oreos, in his characteristically offhand way, the narrator says: “If you ask me, Mark Twain didn’t use the word ‘n****r’ enough” … Like, why blame Mark Twain because you don’t have the patience and courage to explain to your children that the “n-word” exists… welcome to the American lexicon — N****r! This is only one example of many more in which Beatty brings well-intentioned ideas under the microscope and completely destroys them.
True freedom is having the right to be a slave.
Many will agree that Hominy is the most interesting character in ‘The Sellout’. Hominy used to be an actor on ‘Little Rascals’ where he played a racist caricature. He considers this the pride of his life and doesn’t care that he is propagating prejudice and stereotypes. When he is asked about the antiquated racism of the show, he responds in all seriousness: Blackface? What’s blackface?… we didn’t call it blackface. We called it acting.
Not only is he okay with his role in ‘Little Rascals’, but he seems very comfortable with subservience and inferiority. Hominy voluntarily offers himself to the narrator as a slave, asked to be physically and violently punished, and misses the days of segregation, a nostalgia which the narrator indulges by re-segregating the buses in Dickens.
Honestly, the absurdity of Hominy’s character is unexplainable: you just need to read the book.
The city’s original charter stipulated that “Dickens shall remain free of Chinamen, Spanish of all shades, dialects, and hats, Frenchmen, redheads, city slickers, and unskilled Jews.”
The town of Dickens is also a kind of character in ‘The Sellout’. A scourge on the reputation of California, Dickens is removed from the map, thus sparking the narrator’s mission to bring Dickens back. This literal erasure and the resultant sentiment of rootlessness among its residents mirror aspects of slavery and the African-American experience. The ‘character development’ of Dickens is analogous to the search for identity and empowerment in an oppressive society.
The White Tiger | Aravind Adiga → if you enjoyed the humour and commentary, and if you chase down Man Booker winners like I do
The Underground Railroad | Colson Whitehead → if you enjoy modern books about race in the USA
Catch-22 | Joseph Heller → if you want to see what Paul Beatty was influenced by
See the synopsis and other reviews on Goodreads.