So here’s the official summary:
A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. Born in Dickens on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, the narrator of The Sellout spent his childhood as the subject in his father’s racially charged psychological studies. He is told that his father’s work will lead to a memoir that will solve their financial woes. But when his father is killed in a drive-by shooting, he discovers there never was a memoir. All that’s left is a bill for a drive-through funeral. What’s more, Dickens has literally been wiped off the map to save California from further embarrassment. Fuelled by despair, the narrator sets out to right this wrong with the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
Turned down by 18 British publishers before being picked up by the tiny independent press Oneworld, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (Man Booker 2016, National Book Critics Circle Award 2016) is a dense book best read on an e-reader with easy and constant access to Wikipedia or the whole of Google. There are way too many cultural and historical references – court cases (Plessy vs. Ferguson), films (The Little Rascals), famous people (Booker T. Washington), landmarks (Washington Monument), etc.
Post-#BlackLivesMatter, there has been some notable non-fiction that fully or partly raises the issue of race in America, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (a letter to his son about being black in the country) and Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things (where he exposes what he calls “The White-Savior Industrial Complex”). Somewhat bitter and somewhat bleak, such expressions have been received with both sympathy and suspicion.
Beatty’s award-winning novel is a timely release that looks at the subject of the African-American identity in an explosively unconventional manner. Portions of it are laugh-aloud funny, others just epic in their sadness. The book simultaneously seemed like an extended, irreverent rap song and an emphatic and indignant protest march. Unfortunately, many will find it too demanding and keep it away. But there’s a lot to learn and think about – if you can stay and stick with it till the end.
I will not explain the plot or utter spoilers but share a few lines that I found memorable and thought-provoking:
- This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.
- I understand now that the only time black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief.
- “When a white bitch got problems, she’s a damsel in distress! When a black bitch got problems, she’s a welfare cheat and a burden on society. How come you never see any black damsels?…”
- The problem is that we don’t know whether integration is a natural or an unnatural state. Is integration, forced or otherwise, social entropy or social order?
- I’m a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists. We separate the wheat from the chaff. I’m not Rudofl Hess, P. W. Botha, Capitol Records, or present-day U.S. of A. Those m———— segregate because they want to hold on to power. I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor n—–, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.