Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 288 pages.
African-American writer Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was controversial in Britain as the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. That news didn't yield a yawn in the United States, where most wouldn’t know the Man Booker from Booker T. and the MGs. But its content makes it a hot potato. Beatty’s novel is deliciously wicked and ambiguous. Is it satire, or a rant? Does it praise black culture, or lampoon it? It is musing upon black power, or surrender to emasculation? Only two things are clear: Beatty thinks discussion of a post-racial society is risible bullshit, and if you’re a person who can’t read, say, or stomach the word “nigger,” you shouldn’t go within a country mile of this novel.
Beatty's style is summed by his main character's personal motto: "Cognito, ergo Boogieum–I think, therefore I jam.” Beatty excels at jams, gibes, and riffs. He's also a published poet, and the first third of this book is essentially a prolonged attitude-heavy, profanity-laced, chip-on-the-shoulder prose rap about the state of Black America. It is incisive, barbed, distressingly real, yet funny. Beatty also takes aim at the ways in which black humor is homogenized (by black and white scholars alike). He's from the school that doesn’t shy from snaps, vulgarity, and verbal jousting. Take, for example, his rant on how he's tired of seeing black characters being described by hues such as "honey-colored," "chocolate," or "mocha:" "How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren't there any yogurt-colored, eggshell tone, string cheese-canned, low-fat milk white protagonists in these racist no-third-act-having books?" Or this one on how "hard" it is to talk about race: "…I actually think the country does a decent job of addressing race, and when folks say, "Why can't we talk about race more reasonably?" what they really mean is, "Why can't you niggers be reasonable? … And by race we mean niggers, because no one … seems to have any difficulty talking out-of-pocket shit about Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, or America's newest race, the Celebrity."
The novel is also about the anonymity of black men in white America, a point he makes by veiling the narrator’s very name. His surname might be “Me,” though his on-again/off-again bus driver girlfriend calls him “Bonbon.” His Los Angeles–"the city that's always passed out on the couch"–looks nothing like La La Land, he’s nobody’s idea of a kid from the ‘hood, nor does the ‘hood' resemble expectations. Bonbon was raised by a single father who was brilliant, yet crazy as a March hare—a social scientist at a local community college whose son was his favorite lab rat for lessons on racism and self-reliance. Call it childhood in an absurdist African- American Skinner box. Among his father’s other projects: he's a co-founder of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals—a combination black Chautauqua, social center, and liar’s bench—the community “Nigger Whisperer” who calms agitated locals in potentially violent confrontations, and a farmer. Did I say farmer? Yes. The local neighborhood is a section of Los Angeles called “Dickens,” one of the novel’s numerous literary wordplays. Dickens was designed as an agricultural enclave, thus he and Bonbon also keep livestock, tend fruit orchards, and line their urban fields with manure. (Dickens is imagined, but farming actually does take place in parts of Compton.) Bonbon’s father also made sure his son was well-educated, well-spoken, and neatly attired, which meant spending a lot of time in white society. As Bonbon caustically remarks, “I was the diversity” seen in dozens of brochures. Within the 'hood, this also makes him the "sellout."
Bonbon’s life takes a dramatic turn when his father is gunned down by the LAPD and local developers unincorporate Dickens in hopes of gentrifying it. The latter plan distresses Hominy Jenkins, who hitherto enjoyed the attention of (often white) visitors seeking him as the “Last Little Rascal.”* Hominy had so internalized his subordination that Dickens' disappearance renders him a non-entity. He's so down that he asks Bonbon to enslave and whip him and begins calling him “Massa.” Bonbon, in turn, decides to reestablish Dickens by putting up signs, painting lines in the road, and declaring Dickens a re-segregated all-black community.
What ensues is a reverse-race riff on amendments thirteen through fifteen. Needless to say, Massa and Hominy throw numerous constituencies into an uproar. Is theirs the ultimate self-loathing, or perverse brilliance? Don’t look to Beatty to resolve that question. His alter ego character remarks that his father taught him that black people don’t think alike but, in fact, they do: every black person thinks he or she is superior to every other black person! Beatty uses the character of Foy Cheshire as his foil. You name the conceit or scam, and Cheshire has it. Among his schemes is the rewriting of classic novels from a black POV—usually the originals with a few words strategically changed—and he wants “his” novels in the school curriculum. Foy Cheshire: black nationalist, or Jim Dandy minstrel huckster? And what do we make of the very master/slave relationship between Bonbon and Hominy? The implication, I think, is that being white requires domination of at least one black person.
Yep–a controversial book. It’s also brilliant: a joy to read, laugh-out-loud funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking. It’s what you’d get if you mashed James Baldwin with Chris Rock. Is it racist for a white guy to laugh at any of this? I’m guessing that Paul Beatty’s answer would be, “Who’s to say?” Just don’t tell him that race no longer matters.
* The "Little Rascals" is the name of the pack of poor street kids from the Hal Roach comedy shorts Our Gang, which played in theaters between 1922 and 1944, and was syndicated for television during the 1950s and early 1960s. It was the first to show white and black kids as peers on a semi-equal basis, though it also traded in cringe-worthy stereotypes. There was never a black character named "Hominy," but there was "Buckwheat" and "Farina." The other two black characters were named "Sunshine Sammy" and "Stymie."