I hadn’t heard of this book until it was longlisted for this years Man Booker Prize, and was instantly intrigued. Satire is tricky to pull off. Writing a novel that is not raises laughs but important questions, that points the finger without causing (too much) offense, is a difficult business. Paul Beatty has managed all this in The Sellout.
Born in the ‘agrarian ghetto’ of Dickens on the outskirts of Los Angeles and raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, the narrator…spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He was led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-our, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.
The narrator is never given a first name. His surname is Me, allowing for the Supreme Court case Me v. the United States. After his father dies, the narrator is alone on the farm. In this inner-city farm, he grows crops and raises animals, cruising the streets of Dickens on his horse. Until, one day, Dickens just ceases to exist, excised from the map to save the state of California embarrassment following widespread local corruption.
This state of being from nowhere eventually leads to the events which lead Me to the Supreme Court, charged with reinstating slavery and segregating the local school. The catalyst is Me’s octogenarian neighbour, Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving member of the Little Rascals, a Hollywood studio posse of street urchins who appeared in many a matinee movie. Jenkins is the local celebrity, a former human golliwog whose self-esteem still relies on the occasional fan showing up at his door. When no one can find Dickens, this unreliable flow of adoration dries up completely, and Hominy becomes desperate.
When Me saves Hominy from his failing suicide attempt, Hominy takes it upon himself to become his slave, a situation that seems to benefit him more than our narrator:
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 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.
There is only one way to save the situation: bring back Dickens. Me and Hominy team up with some of the locals to put into place a master plan that will draw attention to Dickens and force it back on the map. Of all of Me’s endeavours, his attempt to find a twin city for Dickens is my favourite. Rejected by Juarez, Chernobyl and Kinshasa, he decides to select the Lost City of White Male Privilege.
…it became impossible to walk the streets…, feeding your ego by reciting mythological truisms like ‘We built this country!’ when all around you brown men were constantly hammering and nailing, cooking world-class French meals, and repairing your cars.
Beatty is not afraid to ladle on the criticism, of all sections of US society, making you think as you laugh. Me’s offences are mostly symbolic. Can you enslave a man at his own request? How do you segregate a school district that has no white students anyway? It is the idea, rather than the practice, that is dangerous and that needs addressing. Enforced segregation may not exist any more; we create it ourselves and then we don’t talk about it.
I have read other reviews of this book, and one in particular brought up the question of the ‘in-joke’, and how dangerous it is when they become jokes for everyone. I kind of think that this is the point though. Beatty jokes about every race, criticises everyone from the white people who find it cool to have a black friend, to the black intellectual (Me’s nemesis Foy Cheshire) who nicknames our anti-hero ‘The Sellout’ is in it for the fame more than the beliefs. This book is not afraid to point the finger, it talks about the racial issues that we have ignored for so long and are now coming to a head. The concept of in-jokes suggests a tribal mindset that perhaps needs to change. Otherwise do we not run the risk of segregating our literature?