The Sellout by Paul Beatty is a modern American satire that follows a child raised as a social experiment by his father, who goes on to tackle racism in his home town with extreme lengths in a hilarious and oftentimes ridiculous manner; it won the Man Booker Prize for 2016, and it is above all else funny and profound.
It is gripping from the very beginning and the style of writing is charming. Beatty makes grave moments lighthearted and while laughing at a sentence, you might stop yourself to wonder if you should even be laughing at this? But that’s what makes it so relatable; in my experience, people respond better to laughter than sobriety and Beatty captures this throughout.
“Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot niggers on sight”.
When Bonbon’s dad is killed by a police officer in a drive-by shooting, he reacts absurdly and quite hysterically. Doused in dark humour, Beatty almost dismisses the seriousness of this crime and makes light of the situation just as he does with the rest of the issues he raises, and in doing so makes them comical yet understandable.
Beatty creates a character who, on the surface, seems uncomplicated but struggles with his identity, wondering whether or not he should care about being black, but then absurdly sets out to rectify racism by reinstating segregation in his city of Dickens; one of the many ideas presented which is so preposterous it is comical, that drive this book and make it so wildly unique.
Though some of the references throughout the book go over your head, it nonetheless makes for an intriguing and even informative read. What struck me most about this work however, were the relationships within it. In particular Bonbon’s relationship with Hominy, former child star in ‘Little Rascals’, who enslaves himself to Bonbon and is one of the guiding influences in his plans for Dickens which ultimately land him in the Supreme Court for violation of the Civil Rights Acts.
His relationship with his father, with Hominy, with his love interest Marpessa and enemy Foy Cheshire are all vastly different but intense and intriguing and I think if I would change anything about the book, I would have liked to see these relationships delved into and explored to a deeper degree, just because they were so extraordinary and fascinating.
I would definitely recommend this book; it pushes the boundaries of what is common belief about society, America in particular, and its promise of equality and freedom and through humour makes it easier for people unfamiliar with it to resonate and understand that all that can be done has not been done; and aside from that it is a fascinating read with well-developed characters and thought-provoking concepts.
“It’s illegal to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, right?”
“Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”
Ultimately the story encompasses a conflicted black man who can’t decide if being black is something he should be proud of or ashamed of or indifferent to and his inner conflict may be quite relevant in today’s society. Do we need to be doing more to tackle racism in a “post-racial” world? Beatty doesn’t seem bitter, but very aware that racial discrimination has not disappeared and is still prevalent today. An excerpt from the book calmly puts it;
“That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions and song. History is the thing that stays with you.”