Publication date: March 3rd 2015
How do you review a book when you’re not quite certain that you should or even that you should have been allowed to read it? This was the question in my mind after finishing Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. The novel is set in a ghetto outside Los Angeles called Dickens and is about a young black man whose childhood is spent being homeschooled and basically tortured by his father, a hybrid of social scientist and farmer, who uses aversion therapy to prepare his son for the real world. He also believes that his experiments, with his son as the only subject, will result in a sociological text that will bring them fame and money. Instead, he is killed by the police and Bonbon (a nickname from the woman he loves) buys their land with the city’s settlement, becoming an urban famer who grows produce that literally makes people weep with its goodness. Oh, and weed that’s even better. Later, Dickens is deemed to be so damaging to the property values of nearby affluent suburbs that it is dissolved as a city. It becomes his life’s work to re-establish it in all its blighted glory, thereby protecting it from white encroachment.
Bonbon begins by painting lines around the city’s former limits. For this he is called Sellout by Foy Cheshire, a man so consumed by the fight against black degradation that he rewrites white classics for black readers, turning them into Uncle Tom’s Condo, The Point Guard in the Rye, The Dopeman Cometh, and The Great Blacksby. Even saving the life of the town’s most famous citizen, Hominy Jackson, the last surviving member of the original Little Rascals does not help. In gratitude Hominy declares himself to be Bonbon’s slave, an act that leaves Bonbon frustrated not only for its moral implications but because
They say “pimpin’ ain’t easy. Well, neither is slaveholdin’. Like children, dogs, dice, and overpromising politicians, and apparently prostitutes, slaves don’t do what you tell them to.
Hominy is the jester to Bonbon’s calm, shucking and jiving and spouting the most atrocious of racial epithets, not to mention demanding that he whips him—something Bonbon refuses to do, instead paying a local dominatrix to handle it. The final straw that lands Bonbon in legal trouble is his segregation of the local middle school, by pretending to build a private school for whites only across the street. The school’s principal does not fight him.
She understood the colored person’s desire for domineering white presence, which the Wheaton Academy represented. Because she knew that even in these times of racial equality, when someone whiter than us, richer than us, blacker than us, Chineser than us, better than us, whatever than us, comes around throwing their equality in our faces, it brings out our need to impress, to behave, to tuck in our shirts, do our homework, show up on time, make our free throws, teach and prove our self-worth in hopes that we won’t be fired, arrested, or trucked away and shot.
If this sounds like a lot to follow it is (and it is only part of a plot that sprawls despite being fit into 288 lean pages), but Beatty writes with such strength and surety that it is like being swept away in the rapids of a raging river. If you struggle against it, you’re likely to either drown in the icy cold truths of bigotry or bash your brains out against the rocks of your own laughter at things that are not funny. The only way to float is to relax into it.
There is difficulty in reading a novel where the n-word is used like a comma, especially when you are a middle-aged white woman who was brought up to never ever ever under any circumstances use that word, but Beatty doesn’t care and use it he will. He’s black so he’s allowed, but it caused the circuitry in my brain to fire off all kinds of political correctness warnings. And not just over race. Beatty pillories a wide expanse of other oddities and offences of American life that most of us have been taught not to think about, much less discuss. That he can sustain the rhythmic beat of pop culture and historical references within an absurdist plot is genius. Which is not to say The Sellout is easy reading. Discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance is not necessarily something people want in their fiction. Thankfully, Beatty’s wisdom and humor are reward enough for every word of this piercing dissection of American culture.