I haven’t read much modern satire and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout convinced me I should start. The Sellout’s depiction of the Supreme Court in the prologue is so pointed (and uproariously funny) because everyone knows which Justices are being mocked with no footnotes necessary. It takes some of the sting out if, after reading a line, you’re required to flip to the back for a history lecture before nodding and saying, “I get it now. That’s hilarious.”
From the back cover:
Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies, and has since resigned himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians. Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he is told that his father’s work will lead to a memoir that will solve their financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.
Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceiveable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in front of the Supreme Court.
All the reviews I read pronounced this book “hilarious” and a “comic masterpiece.” When I finally picked it up and read the back cover, I was thrown. Given the state of race relations in the U.S. right now, how can any of the above be rendered “funny”? Reinstatement of slavery ≠ Hahaha! But it’s not what you think. Bonbon, the narrator, falls into slaveholding when his friend Hominy insists on becoming his slave. Once Hominy begs to be whipped regularly, Bonbon does the only thing he can: he takes him to a dominatrix for “two hundred bucks an hour plus ‘racial incidentals.'” (84)
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 do. And when your eighty-some-odd-year-old black thrall has maybe fifteen good minutes of work in him a day and enjoys the shit out of being punished, you don’t get many of the plantation perks you see in the movies either. (81)
Seeing Hominy’s happiness leads Bonbon to paint a new border around Dickens and implement various types of segregation. The “plot” winds along between witty infusions of song lyrics, pop culture, psychobabble, literature, and fantastic plants; throughout, it’s guided by the rhythm and tempo of great stand-up comedy. I can’t say enough good things about the writing here, so I plan to subject you to a series of long quotations with minimal commentary. I was hooked by the first paragraph, but it was this paragraph that first made me laugh with its “hajj of blue-jeaned yokels” and the sly addition of “predatory lending”:
Washington, D.C., with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing jobs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms). Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shod Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest of the Los Angeles jungles, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-jeaned yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks. I stared in awe at the Lincoln Memorial. If Honest Abe had come to life and somehow managed to lift his bony twenty-three-foot, four-inch frame from his throne, what would he say? What would he do? Would he break-dance? Would he pitch pennies against the curbside? Would he read the paper and see that the Union he saved was now a dysfunctional plutocracy, that the people he saved were now slaves to rhythm, rap, and predatory lending, and that today his skill set would be better suited for the basketball court than the White House? There he could catch the rock on the break, pull up for a bearded three-pointer, hold the pose, and talk shit as the ball popped the net. The Great Emancipator, you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him. (4)
This humor is offset with serious commentary; Beatty hits points and angles that would be at home in The New York Times or The Atlantic when Bonbon ponders his fate while awaiting trial at the Supreme Court:
That’s the bitch of it, to be on trial for my life, and for the first time ever not feel guilty. That omnipresent guilt that’s as black as fast-food apple pie and prison basketball is finally gone, and it feels almost white to be unburdened from the racial shame that makes a bespectacled college freshman dread Fried Chicken Fridays at the dining hall. I was the “diversity” the school trumpeted so loudly in its glossy literature, but there wasn’t enough financial aid in the world to get me to suck the gristle from a leg bone in front of the entire freshman class. […] I understand now that the only time black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief. In the way that cooning is a relief, voting Republican is a relief, marrying white is a relief—albeit a temporary one. (17-18)
At times, the plot is almost difficult to follow between the wordplay, flashbacks, and commentary. I read The Sellout over the course of a couple weeks, which is a much longer period than I typically spend with a book I enjoy. There are so many asides and one-liners that I recommend taking your time. You could so easily read over something, and missing a single line of Beatty’s prose is missing out. I don’t enjoy when a book softens in the middle and meanders, but I have time for jokes written in APA format (with citations!) and reimagined American Lit. To the latter, Foy Cheshire, the default leader of an intellectual group, has taken it upon himself to reform the classics:
“That’s why I took the liberty to rewrite Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Where the repugnant ‘n-word’ occurs, I replaced it with ‘warrior’ and the word ‘slave’ with ‘dark-skinned volunteer.'”
“That’s right!” shouted the crowd.
“I also improved Jim’s diction, rejiggered the plotline a bit, and retitled the book The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.” (95)
Also consider his opening to The Great Blacksby:
Real talk. When I was young, dumb, and full of cum, my omnipresent, good to my mother, non-stereotypical African-American daddy dropped some knowledge on me that I been trippin’ off of ever since. (166)
There’s also humor without a whole lot of nuance to it:
If my sexual ineptitude was a problem, she never let on. She simply boxed my ears and worked my beached-whale carcass over like a Saturday-night wrestler looking for revenge in a grudge match I didn’t want to end.
“Does this mean we’re back together?”
“It means I’m thinking about it.”
“Can you think about it a little faster, and maybe a little more to the right?” (201)
Too many quotes? I’m just trying to represent how many folded pages and underlined bits adorn my copy.
I don’t always think well of the Man Booker Prize winners, as they often feel a bit stuffier than Pulitzer winners, but The Sellout hits on all cylinders. Searing social commentary and wit make it the best winner I’ve read and I’m officially excited for the 2017 longlist and Beatty’s other book, The White Boy Shuffle.
Overall: 5.0 This book is so solidly a 5.0 that it makes me want to demote The Book of Evidence to a 4.9. It’s a rare writer that can be thoughtful and hilarious.
Translation: This category isn’t really necessary here, is it?