Monday, January 30, 2017
The Sellout by Paul Beatty: A review
A book about racism, segregation, slavery that is laugh-out-loud funny? Yep, that would be The Sellout in a nutshell!
It's easy to see why this book won all those awards last year, including the first Man Booker for a work by an American author. It is a tour-de-force of writing, a biting social satire that makes its point not with a bludgeon but with a delicate literary sensibility firmly based in historical authenticity.
Beatty has given us a protagonist/narrator who is a young black man from the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens, a neighborhood on the outskirts of southern Los Angeles. He was raised by a single father, a sociologist who used his son as the subject of his weird, often outlandish psychological studies of the roots of fear and of racism.
The son grew up to become a farmer who raised delicious fruit of many kinds, the most delicious of all being satsuma oranges. He also grew watermelons and weed, one of the finest varieties of which he called "Anglophobia."
He lost his father along the way to a policeman's gun. The man was shot essentially for driving while black, a sad and familiar story in our country. At least, the resulting financial settlement with the city of Los Angeles made life a bit easier for the son.
Over time, our narrator watches the decline of his neighborhood, until, finally, Dickens no longer even appears on California maps, at which point our hero decides on a social and psychological experiment of his own, one that will put Dickens back on the map. With the help of the town's most famous resident, the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins, he comes up with an outrageous plan; he will reinstitute slavery and segregation in Dickens. That should get California's - and the world's - attention!
Thus it is that Hominy becomes his willing - even eager - slave and he begins a stealth campaign to reinstitute segregation in the local school. His plan is a roaring success! Soon the students at the all black - well, black and Hispanic and Asian - school are doing better than ever, succeeding as never before.
Sure enough, this does bring him and Dickens attention and he winds up before the Supreme Court in a very funny scene, which I can't even begin to describe.
Along the way, the author pricks the hot air balloons of just about every black American cultural icon and cliche that one could think of - from Mike Tyson to Bill Cosby to George Washington Carver to Tiger Woods to Clarence Thomas and so many more. They are all here. Also lawn jockeys, cotton picking, Saturday morning cartoons, as well as the American liberal agenda all come in for a skewering. The comic writing sometimes made me wince or shrug wryly, but mostly it just made me grin.
This is a zany book that employs racist terms in the service of humor - words that are never spoken in polite society. It's a way to shock the reader and get his/her full attention. Suffice to say if you are one who is offended by the language in Huckleberry Finn, you'll be absolutely appalled by the language in The Sellout.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars