The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is 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-out, he realises there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.
Fuelled 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 from 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 conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
Where to buy it: QBD the Bookshop, paperback $26.99
When can I get my hands on it: Now!
What can I expect: Racism, satire, slavery, a little bit of nonsense
I really enjoyed this book and I think it’s very deserving of the Booker Prize; however, I can see why others wouldn’t like The Sellout. The writing style is patchy and Beatty changes course regularly. The book is filled with observations on society and racial prejudice. Beatty paints a vivid image of the underlying racism and prejudice behind every day social norms.
“When people feel the need to adorn a building or a compound with….”The Happiest place on Earth”, it’s a sign of insecurity, a contrived excuse for taking up our finite space and time…and if Disneyland was indeed the happiest place on Earth, you’d either keep it a secret or the price of admission would be free and not equivalent to the yearly per capita income of a small sub-Saharan African nation like Detroit”.
Hominy was a bit of an odd character. In short, Hominy is an African American child actor whose glory years involved his time on “The Little Rascals”. He’s bat shit crazy and essentially forces the protagonist (a.k.a. the sellout) to be his master. He has a BDSM fetish and seems to want to live out his life as a slave. We get a lot of insight into the rolls Hominy played throughout his career (which started somewhere around the 1920’s or 1930’s). All of which were a reflection of stereotypes and an indication of the limitations imposed on people of colour at that time. I enjoyed the retelling of the skits from “The Little Rascals” and Hominy’s contribution to those scenes. Usually a very minor contribution, one liners, or scenes with him getting injured or doing really stupid things. Never a main role, never intelligent or charismatic. Just an extra to add some quirkiness to the scene.
For Hominy’s birthday, the sellout decides to designate a seat on the local bus as a “whites only” seat. The reasoning behind this is that Hominy is crazy and this will make him happy as the priority seating will bring back memories of life prior to the civil rights movement. The sign stays on the bus indefinitely and the result of this is less incidents. Passengers are calmer and people are generally better behaved. The protagonist claims the sign humbles people because it reminds them of harder times and how far they have come. This outcome leads the protagonist to segregate the school in order to increase grades and reduce behavioural problems. He builds a fake construction site opposite the local school, with a sign reading:
“The Wheaton Academy Charter Magnet School of the Arts, Science, Humanities, Business, Fashion and Everything Else”
The students of this fake school are all white and the effects of this on the school students and their parents are summed up well in this paragraph:
“She understood the coloured person’s desire for the domineering white presence, which the Wheaton Academy represented. Because she knew that even in these times of racial equality, when someone whiter than us, richer than us, blacker than us, Chineser than us, better than us, whatever, than us, comes around throwing their equality in our faces, it brings out our need to impress, to behave, to tuck in our shirts, do our homework, show up on time, make our free throws, teach and prove our self-worth in hopes that we won’t be fired, arrested or trucked away and shot”.
This book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is not structured like a regular novel and the tone is very sarcastic. Story lines don’t really have an end within this novel. You get snippets of things but little progression and closure. For me this was not an issue because I was more interested in Beatty’s satire. There are so many passages in this book that carry a lot of weight. Beatty touches on a lot of issues and says things that are brutally honest.
“Anything that, like baseball, keeps a country that’s constantly preening in the mirror from actually looking in the mirror and remembering where the bodies are buried”.
I actually really enjoyed the writing style. Interestingly this writing style is similar to that of Burroughs in Junky and I actually disliked it in that book but loved it in this book. It’s very fitting within the context and lightens what is a very difficult topic to address. I enjoyed the irony of the Dum Dum Donuts and the stories of the sellout’s youth. He grew up with a questionably sane father who inflicted countless experiments on his son in the name of research and education. This book is not easy to read as the flow is inconsistent; however, I do think it’s worth the effort. This is a memorable novel that sets itself apart from most contemporary fiction.
Final rating: 5/5