Published: March 2015 Pages: 288 Rating: 4/5 Cover: 4/5
“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.”
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2016, Paul Beatty’s American satire “The Sellout” follows protagonist and narrator nicknamed Bonbon, as he recounts the events that lead him to where the book opens; with him on trial in the Supreme Court, arguing that “sometimes segregation brings people together.” The aptly named case of “Me Vs The United States of America” (Bonbon’s Surname being ‘Me’) sets the tone for the continuation of the text, as Beatty goes on to skillfully deconstruct the notion of a Post-racial USA through the use of biting satire.
Born in Dickens on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, Bonbon was raised by his father, a sociologist “of some renown”, and subjected to being his “gangly, absentminded black lab rat” through a childhood of many racially themed psychological experiments and studies. When his Father dies as a result of police brutality, and the city of Dickens is wiped off the map to save California from further embarrassment, Bonbon begins his journey to revitalize and bring back the cultural identity of his home town and its people.
First by literally painting on the ground the border of what was once Dickens, which then progresses to bringing back slavery and the eventual re-segregation of the city; starting with the local “Chaff middle school”. Bonbon erects a plywood fence around the vacant lot opposite the school, “with small rectangle cutouts through which passerby could watch building that would never take place” on the all white “Wheaton academy”. The outrage surrounding which results in the local middle school becoming ‘Colored only”. An almost imperceptible play on the saying “to separate the wheat from the chaff”.
“..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.”
I bought this book back in November of 2016, whilst on break from my Christmas job working at a Santa photography set. In a couple of days I had read the first half, only for it to be put down and up and back down for the next few months and picked up again for the final time last week. “This is a hard book,” said Beatty, during his Man Booker Prize acceptance speech. “It was a hard for me to write, I know it’s hard to read.” The latter of which i can certainly attest to, having found it difficult at times to keep momentum whilst reading. Despite this, i found myself persisting, falling in love with Beatty’s incredibly smart use of language, and laughing out loud with each new page I turned.
“You know how when you play Chutes and ladders and you’re almost at the finish line, but you spin a six and land on that long, really curvy red slide that takes you from square sixty-seven all the way back to number twenty-four?”
“Yes, sir,” he’d say politely.
“Well,” I’d say, rubbing his ball-peen-hammer head, “I’m that long red slide.”
I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone willing to push through it, as it is undeniably worth it. As many others have commented, “The longer you stare at Beatty’s pages, the smarter you’ll get”. Beatty navigates difficult themes in such a skillful way, challenging harmful cultural assumptions, which make this witty and daring novel a delight to read.