The Sellout and Beatty pull no punches, taking down cows sacred and otherwise.
Maybe the election of Donald Trump will change things, but currently we tiptoe around the topic of race in the United States. We watch what we say. Rather than celebrate our differences, we pretend that we emerged from the same homogenous swamp of culture and custom. Yet, the most popular comedians are ones that break down these walls of propriety, examine our glorious differences. They are unafraid to poke fun at stereotypes whether somewhat true or far-fetched. Just listen to a Richard Pryor record and you will see what I’m talking about.
In the same tradition comes Paul Beatty’s masterful, Man Booker Prize-winning The Sellout, a brisk satirical novel that rails against every rock we’ve placed in the wall of decorum when it comes to talking about race in the United States. Heady and hilarious, Beatty’s book is also filled with memorable sentences and quips, many of which are peppered with the N-word.
The plot is pretty insane, but I will do my best to summarize here. The narrator is an African-American man from the Los Angeles neighborhood of Dickens, a region that is part agrarian, part ghetto. A farmer who grows both delicious fruit and exquisite marijuana, the narrator soon finds himself hauled in front of the Supreme Court for a variety of crimes against humanity including re-segregating the schools in Dickens and keeping a slave in his house. You read that right. A black man keeping another black man as a slave.
But it’s not really his fault. His slave, an older man named Hominy, the only surviving Little Rascal, wants to be property, despite the narrator’s protestations. And he also didn’t have the best upbringing. His father, a social scientist and self-proclaimed “N-word whisperer,” carried out numerous social experiments on his son to prove that prejudice against the black man was alive and well in the United States. Claims the narrator: “Pops placed objects like toy police cars, cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and a copy of The Economist in my bassinet” His “experiments” included beating his son in the middle of the street to see if passersby would step in and intervene. (They did—they helped him with the beating).
His father was also the founder of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a group of black men who meet to discuss their unenviable position in America’s racial strata. Once the narrator’s father is killed, the man who takes over is an intellectual hell-bent on rewriting American classics such as Huckleberry Finn replacing the N-word with phrases such as “little black euphemism,” removing any hints of racism from the texts and renaming them with titles such as The Perjorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-America Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit. It is here that Beatty and The Sellout come to a key point of the book. The narrator claims that unlike any other persecuted group of people, African-Americans would rather completely expunge everything that has happened to them from the record rather than take the time to acknowledge and examine that awfulness of slavery and racism.
The Sellout and Beatty pull no punches, taking down cows sacred and otherwise by skewering everyone from Condoleezza Rice to George Washington Carver to Tiger Woods in extremely quotable lines. Even Clarence Thomas shows up in a memorable cameo as the narrator faces trial. In many ways, Beatty is like his narrator, offering up his treatise to us, unrepentantly puffing on a joint and leaning back as we gape and try to stifle our surprise and bemusement at just how many lines The Sellout has crossed.