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Sold on The Sellout


Herein shall be reviewed (sort of) Paul Beatty’s novel, The Sellout.

Confessions: I’d never read a Paul Beatty novel before, nor even any of his poems. I’ve heard they’re good–excellent, even. I forget how The Sellout came to my attention, but once I did, I put it on my Amazon wishlist and, in time, it was gifted to me. The reading could begin!

I was initially struck most by Beatty’s style. It’s very crisp, colorful, stream-of-consciousness. There are times when the same sentence goes on for line after line after line, and yet it doesn’t come off as confusing or forced. This is the sign of an author who knows exactly what he’s doing.

It’s impossible to discuss The Sellout without talking about race. Race is the whole point here. Beatty is here to satirize and make comedy out of every black stereotype you could imagine. The protagonist and narrator is a nameless young man struggling to step out of his dead father’s shadow and make a name for himself. When his hometown–an urban farm village and Los Angeles neighborhood known as Dickens–is stricken from the map, he finds his calling. He takes on, however reluctantly, a willing slave named Hominy Jenkins, who is the last surviving Little Rascal (and never appeared in the films, in fact, because his material was always cut), physically paints Dickens’ borders on the streets and sidewalks, and as a gesture to please the relentlessly self-hating, self-victimizing Hominy, segregates Dickens’ bus system so that Hominy can enjoy the simple pleasure of giving up his bus seat to a white person. The narrator’s schemes culminate in segregating Dickens’ schools, as well, and it’s this crime which brings him national attention and lands him before the United States Supreme Court, where he proceeds to light up a joint while his case is being pleaded.

If it sounds farcical, absurd, and offensive, then you’ve understood Beatty’s basic intentions. No target is off-limits here, and there is even a passage in which the narrator, perhaps speaking for the author, characterizes offense as a sort of false outrage–not something you feel, like sadness or joy, but something you _do__ _as a public display. I’m not sure I agree with that, personally, though it may be a good description of instances where offense is taken to excess. Context is key.

Beatty makes liberal use of the n-word here in its original form. That is, not the colloquial form that drops the trailing “r,” but the real deal. It’s dropped on most pages of the book, and while I considered it uncomfortable and distracting at first, since I’m not accustomed to such casual usage of it in a modern day setting (as opposed to a historically-set work), but by the end it was almost familiar, the word’s power drained through excessive use… or a linguistic icon of racism destigmatized for the reader? I’m certainly not about go around using it, myself, but the ambiguous consequences of Beatty’s employment of it in The Sellout strike me as an intended effect.

Moreover, though I described the plot of the book, that is hardly the point. The real star here is Beatty’s language, his inventive idioms, comparisons, metaphors, turns of phrase, monologues on topics from sister cities to racism in Hollywood to psychology to sexual inadequacy. Pop culture references abound, and there’s an amusing convention in which the narrator speaks of certain real-world individuals who have commented on, appeared in, or are otherwise involved with Dickens. Beatty doesn’t spell out their names, but instead uses blanks with a few letters filled in, e.g. B_r___ O_____. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out who most of them are, and they come off as little inside jokes for the reader who takes the time to identify them all.

It is, put simply, a book that is highly entertaining to read. What I feel less qualified to comment on are the passages about blackness and black experience in America. On top of that, there are many references and allusions that I suspect resonate much more with black Americans who can relate to the sentiments and experiences described. I wouldn’t say that detracted from my enjoyment–Beatty did not write so narrowly that only a black audience can get the message. The parts I don’t “get” are more little details that one can easily pass by if you’re not familiar.

The Sellout is takes-no-prisoners hilarious and you should read it.