by Paul Beatty, 2015
Ah, the library. What’s so great about the library nowadays is that you can put any ebook on hold and eventually it’ll come to you without you having to lift a finger. What’s not so great about the library is that, for some reason, all of your ebooks tend to come in at once and you find yourself speed reading them before they’re yanked from your account. Such was the case with The Sellout which, despite having a long wait time, became available to me shortly after I received The Nix, meaning that after reading that 600+ page tome, I had little time to devote to this Booker Prize winner and even less time to spend appreciating it. For I think there is probably some level of genius in this novel, however unable I was to connect with it.
The Sellout is a satire through and through. Heralding from the likes of Jonathan Swift – of whose “A Modest Proposal” I couldn’t help but be reminded – The Sellout tackles the bold themes of race and racism, but instead of the usual plea that our world would be so greatly improved without them, it suggests that our society has never seen such order and peace as in the days of segregation. We start when our narrator – known only by his last name “Me” – is brought before the Supreme Court for the crime of keeping a slave. What’s ironic is that our narrator is black and his “slave” has indentured himself. From there we go back in time to learn how the son of a psychologist killed in a police shooting came to accidentally support modern slavery and reinstitute segregation.
The genius of the book lies in Beatty’s scathing observations about society. Our narrator’s father is assuredly absurd, having conditioned his son to fear white authority from a young age, but his death is described in such simple terms as to appear equally absurd. After being stopped in traffic and insisting the officer either issue a ticket or lecture, but not both, “The officers took exception, pulled their guns, your dad ran like any sensible person would, they fired four shots into his back and left him for dead in the intersection.” As the narrator muses earlier in the book, “Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot niggers on sight.”
Reading the book now, it’s obvious that it was created during a specific point in history – that of our first black president. This was a time when many wanted to claim racism was dead, that we were in a post-racial society, when a brief look at the news easily proved that to be false. The Sellout deals with this notion, calling it the “Lost City of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males). Others state categorically that the walls of the locale have been irreparably breached by hip-hop and Roberto Bolaño’s prose. That the popularity of the spicy tuna roll and a black American president were to white male domination what the smallpox blankets were to Native American existence.” After the narrator attempts to resegregate his city by instituting a “coloreds only” school, society goes mad with claims of reverse racism. As he notes, they “should’ve known that while 250 poor colored kids getting inferior educations will never be front-page news, the denial of even one white student access to a decent education would create a media shit storm.”
The Sellout is rife with such astute observations and I think it’s a piece of a literature that deserves to be studied and picked apart and have essays dedicated to it in schools. Not only does it represent the toll years of oppression have had on the black community, it also sharply tears open the one brief period when we were supposed to believe that all that had come to an end. Asserting that it’s illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, our narrator affirms his crime of “whisper[ing] ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” There’s so much truth amongst the insane plot that I believe this a book everyone should read. Alas, I think that for many, as was the case for me, that accompanying insanity will leave them feeling disconnected and unable to fully appreciate Beatty’s genius.