Paul Beatty’s Sellout

Paul Beatty, The Sellout (©2015, Oneworld 2016)

sellout.jpegThis won the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and people from Sarah Silverman to a Penthouse reviewer, four pages of them at the start of the OneWorld edition, have heaped praise on it, so it was a welcome gift at Christmas.

In the prologue the narrator, an African-American man, appears in a US court charged with undoing the gains of the Civil rights movement by reintroducing slavery.

It’s an intriguingly provocative set-up, but alas I didn’t manage to read more than about about a third of the book.

It’s a story of a boy whose psychologist father home-schooled him, beat him savagely, and replicated famous child-experiments with him as the suffering subject, who grows up to become oddly contrarian, fiercely anti-racist but perhaps even more fiercely anti the pieties of Black culture, with a farm in the middle of ghettoised Los Angeles as a key locale. To me it felt contrived and arbitrary, but not sufficiently weird or tumultuous to compel. Of course my failure to persevere may have to do with my mood of the moment, or parochial irritation at the frequent opaque Los Angeles references. So  don’t let me put you off.

Here’s a bit from just before I laid it aside. The African-American character speaking is a mediocre academic who has made and lost fame and fortune as a Black voice in the media, largely by stealing other people’s ideas.

‘One night, not long ago,’ Foy said, ‘I tried to read this book, Huckleberry Finn, to my grandchildren, but I couldn’t get past page six because the book is fraught with the “n-word”. And although they are the deepest-thinking, combat-ready eight- and ten-year-olds I know, I knew my babies weren’t ready to comprehend Huckleberry Finn on its own merits. 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.’
[…]
—–Foy touched his fingertips together in front of his chest, the universal sign that the smartest person in the room is about to say something. He spoke loudly and quickly, his speech picking up in speed and intensity with every word. ‘I propose that we move to demand the inclusion of my politically respectful edition of Huckleberry Finn into every middle-school reading curriculum,’ he said. ‘Because it is a crime that generations of black folk come of age never having experienced this’ – Foy snuck a peek at the original book’s back cover – ‘this hilariously picturesque American classic.’

That isn’t terrible. Quite apart from the frequent use of the ‘n-word’ by the narrator of this book, I get what’s being mocked, and agree that it needs mocking. When I worked in children’s literature there were authorities who wanted to restrict access to Margaret Mahy’s superb The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate so as not to trigger children who had been attacked by real pirates. But, like many of the narrator’s satiric riffs, this mockery is too easy. Which is pretty  much how I found the narrative as a whole: I think it wants to be a rollicking, take-no-prisoners ride knocking down sacred cows in all directions, but it just doesn’t rollick and instead of sacred cows it burns straw men.

Your mileage may vary.

2 responses to “Paul Beatty’s Sellout

  1. Hi Jonathan

    While for me it did get bogged down around half way through, I enjoyed it enough to persevere. A lot of the ideas and writing were really funny and/or interesting to me—eg the Our Gang Comedy actor and his child parts, and the latin mottos. I know I missed a lot of references, but maybe as an American I picked up some you would have missed. Apparently there really is/was pocket of farms in the middle of LA ghettoland . . . ! It reminded me of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, which I liked also. (Not that I remember much of it!)

    Cheers Janet

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  2. Hi Janet. I must have been in a grumpy mood. I was irritated by the Latin mottoes, partly because the Latin was dubious, but I suspect that was the point. and while I did see a couple of episodes of Our Gang somewhere in my childhood, I never really got it, and so I kind of just waited for that part to be over, only to discover it was significant to the plot. And, oops!, I thought the farmland was a piece of arbitrary mockery of the ghettos – so my response to the book should definitely not be taken as a guide to any prospective readers. (I haven’t seen Bamboozled, but I’ve loved other Spike Lee movies, so maybe I’ll enjoy the movie of this book …)

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