The Sellout – Paul Beatty

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The Sellout is a satire set in the fictional Los Angeles suburb of Dickens, and concerns the young black narrator’s relationship with America, and his search for identity.  The narrator has been home-educated by his father, a psychologist who submitted his son to the indignity of a range of psychological tests and experiments, at times involving electric shock treatment!!

I know that’s weird, but so was the book.  Realistic, in that the descriptions and narrative voice appear to be drawn from everyday life, this book is also full of caricatures and exaggerations which the writer uses to offer a satirical account of modern America.

So the novel begins in the supreme court in Washington DC, where the narrator is accused of owning a slave, in contravention of the 14th amendment.  He points out that the court is surprised he’s managed to camouflage his “black ass” in the red white and blue of the American flag for so long, and introduces a black female poet wearing a, “Toni Morrison signature pashmina”.  She has a young black boy clinging to her crotch and wags her false finger-nailed hands at him critically, mumbling “incoherently” about “slave ships” and “black pride”.  She, the successful and lauded black woman, is ashamed of the narrator’s blackness: as the figurative mother of a new black nation, or a new black consciousness, she clearly doesn’t impress the author.

The Toni Morrison figure is the first of a number of embodiments of the black experience used to explore the changing ways in which blackness has been defined in the USA, to define the nature of racism, and and to show America’s progress, or lack of progress towards true equality and acceptance of racial diversity.

The narrator’s upbringing has been tough, and he has been damaged by his father’s attempt to inculcate a sense of black identity.  He makes his son take the doll identity test, but when the narrator chooses the white dolls because, “the white people get better accessories”, his father gives up on him and sends him out into the fields in this rural backwater of a Los Angeles suburb.  Yes, in their quarter of LA householders live on smallholdings, so there is a pastoral dimension to this story – make of that what you will!

To focus a little on the narrative, the father is shot by police in a “black lives matter” racial shooting: that is, he is stopped by police for what is less than a misdemeanour, and shot in the back when running away as “any sensible person would”.  This detail of course places the book in a specific and very contemporary context.  We see the narrator dragging his father’s body through the streets, symbolising his lack of worth as a black man, and learn of the Dum Dum Donut intellectuals, a black social group his father prompted into meeting regularly for philosophical discussions.  It is a meaningless talking shop, led, after his father’s death, by a psychology lecturer who has stolen and profited from the father’s intellectual property.

As the novel develops we see the relationship between the narrator and a black friend, Hominy, who insists on being the writer’s slave.  He does no work but insists the narrator arranges for him to have a regular whipping!  Hominy turns out to have been a child star on the Little Rascals movies: a series of comic misadventures made in the 1920s and 30s, in which child actors take the starring roles in films that trade on black stereotypes.  Another embodiment of the black experience.

The Little Rascals

There is a romantic angle to this novel in the form of Marpesa: her ample figure can be found behind the steering wheel of a Los Angeles bus.  These are in effect black only as white people mostly drive cars, so the narrator puts up a notice – priority seating for seniors disabled and whites.  Fearful of losing his home when the name Dickens is removed from the latest print version of a local map, the narrator draws a line on the street all around it, and erects signs reminding everyone of its existence. Later he posts fantastic and idealised pictures of an imaginary brand new purpose built high school opposite the current school.  The parents ask enviously what would it take for their children to get there.  The answer is implicit – they would need to be white!

I could go on.  There’s so much in this book that it is certainly worth studying.  The plot is complex, mystifying, rambling and circuitous: the writer fires off madcap ideas all the time, and to make sense of them requires some patience and effort, but is well worth it.  The book is amusing and daring, and the conclusion leaves you in little doubt about the status of the race issue in America today.

The Sellout has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize, which is now open to all writers in English, and not just to British authors.  It’s a challenging read, but deserves to be there.

The Guardian Review

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