The Sellout: First American Man Booker

Read our review from March 2015 of The Sellout. Paul Beatty becomes the first American to win the Man Booker, and it is well deserved.

The Sellout

By Paul Beatty

Beatty explores what it’s like to be black in “postracial” America with searing, acerbic, ceaseless, absurdist humor, and by turning the tables on bigotry by having the main characters, Me (or Bonbon) and Hominy Jenkins bring back slavery and discrimination and argue for them before the Supreme Court.

This is not a novel as most understand the form. It is more of a long standup routine that rains down on you for a couple of hours, composed of riffs on films, culture, psychology, gangs, territories, education, and Me’s passion, horticulture in an urban desert. The storyline, which surfaces for sustaining air periodically, is the one line from our opening, an apparently absurd idea that illustrates how absurd what engenders it really is.

Okay, so what kind of reading experience is The Sellout? The best way to describe it, apart from imagining yourself at a meeting of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals (founded by Me’s psychologist father, deceased but impossible for Me to forget, gunned down by police in the street) in which Me finally arouses himself enough to fire off his riff, like the black comedian who brings life to the club on the cusp of its demise. Or, view a few Diego Rivera murals of culture, oppression, history, and revolution to get a sense of how the frequent digressions mesh to paint a picture. Or, reach further back into art history and study Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” depicting the delights (what’s beyond the barrio of Dickens) to the hell in places like Dickens. In short, a ton of stuff splattered on the wall, formed into tales, taken together to impart an impression.

Now, it would be nice to quote from The Sellout, however, let’s just say that the slang-slinging in Django Unchained might be tame by comparison. But wait. There is one part that might pass. That’s the opening, which sets the tone of the book nicely:

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the way of mercantilism and mimimim-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers the Supreme Court of the United States of America …” and so it goes on, intensifying.

Worth your time? Absolutely, if you’d like to make a little sense of times that seem to make no sense whatsoever. w/c


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