I had seen The Sellout on display shelves and end-caps at various bookstores but, having never heard of Paul Beatty (admittedly, my bad), I didn’t take much notice of it. But near the end of 2015, I scoured several best-novels-of-the-year lists and The Sellout was prominently and lavishly mentioned in several, described repeatedly as some combination of overlooked, brilliant, and perfectly timely.
And it is.
The Sellout is a novel about a bright and angry young black man in modern-day Los Angeles, specifically in an area that was once its own municipality known as Dickens, California. In his efforts to re-establish his former hometown, he essentially works to resegregate the public transportation and schools within the confines of Dickens via all manner of race-related hi-jinks. Without spoiling any of the fun, I can reveal that the novel’s opening scene finds our protagonist appearing before the Supreme Court of the United States.
Now, I am no way an authority on the black experience, or on black literature specifically. However, I have read a considerable amount of literary fiction by and/or about black folks, which amounts to just about nothing in terms of what it entitles me to say about the black experience or about black literature specifically.
So, I’ll say merely this: As a non-black, half-white, full-nerd person, The Sellout is a fucking delight, a hoot of a book, a riotous, scandalous, tantalizingly sarcastic skewering of modern American race relations. (This is of course not to say that the state of modern American race relations is a laughing matter; as I write this, it’s been less than a week since the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and I am certainly not laughing.)
Here are a few little tastes. At the beginning of the eighth chapter, our protagonist muses, “In school, whenever I had to do something like memorize the periodic table, my father would say the key to doing boring tasks is to think about not so much what you’re doing but the importance of why you’re doing it. Though when I asked him if slavery wouldn’t have been less psychologically damaging if they’d thought of it as ‘gardening,’ I got a vicious beating that would’ve made Kunta Kinte wince” (106). At another point, he’s musing about why places adorn themselves with slogans: “Ever been to Reno, Nevada? It’s the Shittiest Little City in the World, and if Disneyland was indeed the Happiest Place on Earth, you’d either keep it a secret or the price of admission would be free and not equivalent to the yearly per capita income of a small sub-Saharan African nation like Detroit” (9-10).
Here’s one more taste. There’s a character in the book named Foy Cheshire, and he’s re-written a number of classic novels with titles like 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, and Uncle Tom’s Condo, and Point Guard in the Rye, and The Great Blacksby, and The Old Black Man and the Inflatable Winnie the Pooh Swimming Pool, and Measured Expectations (95, 165-6, and 217).
Read it, laugh your ass off, but pay close attention and learn. And as you read it, if you worry you’re not entirely getting it, you’re probably not, but that shouldn’t stop you from reading it. Additionally, as you read it, if you find yourself feeling uncomfortable with what you’re reading and/or with how you’re reacting to it and/or with how your reaction is making you feel about yourself, then it’s working; keep reading.