The sellout

by Paul Beatty

Paper Book, 2015





New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.


"Raised in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens--improbably smack in the middle of downtown L.A.--the narrator of The Sellout resigned himself to the fate of all other middle-class Californians: "to die in the same bedroom you'd grown up in, looking up at the crack in the stucco ceiling that had been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist at Riverside Community College, he spent his childhood as the subject in psychological studies, classic experiments revised to include a racially-charged twist. He also grew up believing this pioneering work might result in a memoir that would solve their financial woes. But when his father is killed in a shoot out with the police, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral and some maudlin what-ifs. Fuelled by this injustice and the general disrepair of his down-trodden hometown, he sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident--the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins, our narrator initiates a course of action--one that includes reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school--destined to bring national attention. These outrageous events land him with a law suit heard by the Supreme Court, the latest in a series of cases revolving around the thorny issue of race in America. The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the most sacred tenets of the U.S. Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality--the black Chinese restaurant"--"A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court"--… (more)

Media reviews

New York Review of Books
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But somehow, The Sellout isn't just one of the most hilarious American novels in years, it also might be the first truly great satirical novel of the century.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Vicki_Weisfeld
I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.
Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.
Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.
At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.
His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.
We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.
However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.
The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.
It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”
I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.
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LibraryThing member annbury
This book is a mess. The author has no idea as to how to structure a novel or any idea of plot. If my wife had not read the book and enjoyed it and told me the story, I never would have gotten it. True, some of the humor is funny but as a critic says below, it didn't work for him (her) as a novel and would have been better as a collection of fables or short stories.… (more)
LibraryThing member franoscar
spoilers could be here.
I don't know.
I think that the writing is wonderful. I just read a couple of mainstream reviews and they don't talk about the writing, the language. I think that's a shame.
The Sellout is funny and it is provocative & I'm not sure what to think & what I think is that he's mainly trying to push the notion of the individual self rather than the movement member.
It faltered some as it went on, and I decided not to read Slumberland, at least not right now.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
This critically acclaimed novel begins with the narrator on trial in front of the Supreme Court for racial segregation and slavery. As a way of trying to put his forgotten town back on the map, the first person narrator,named Me, starts to segregate his all black town in order to give it a sense of pride. This funny,biting satire of supposed post racial relations in Southern California is at times hard to read, and at times outrageously funny,but it is always obvious that a smart bit of writing is going on here.
NPR sums up nicely, "The plot is clearly absurd, but it has to be — in an era where people still talk about "post-racial America" unironically, it's hard not to either laugh or cry at how bizarre the national conversation on race has become. And while there is plenty of real sadness in The Sellout, it's tempered by Beatty's outrageously hilarious mockery of politics, entertainment, and pretty much everything else. It's a risky book unconcerned about offending readers, which is a rare thing indeed in today's easily outraged culture. This book won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
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LibraryThing member Gwendydd
There is a lot to enjoy in this book, but I think I would have enjoyed it more as a short story. In fact, reviewer Jess Zimmerman said it best: "It’s sardonic, which I like, but it’s relentlessly, exhaustingly, exaggeratedly sardonic. It just hammers away: HELLO I AM BITING SATIRE. BITE BITE. There are funny lines galore—I bet Paul Beatty is great at Twitter. But I also bet I would mute him after a few weeks because Jesus Christ, dude, enough."

Every sentence is a work of sarcastic, hilarious art, but Zimmerman is right that it can be very unrelenting.
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LibraryThing member mattclark
Biting, funny, challenging. So much is packed in to every page of this book. It seethes with anger at the racist system and everyone in it. Like an Uzi packed with satirical one-liners and clever thought bubbles the author sprays at everyone and everything.
LibraryThing member devilish2
A fascinating look at what it means to belong, what is 'society', what is our view of ourself and ourselves, what can change that. More deeply, it questions what is appropriate behaviour in a society, and a profound look at African American politics. It took a while to get into it, once you're in, the characters and the questions become fascinating. There's deep intelligence, broad discourse and wide-ranging subject matter, and there's even humour to leaven the sometimes heavy subject matter.… (more)
LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Warning: swear words

Bonbon lives in a small city in South Central Los Angeles. It was originally founded as a farming community, but was overtaken by the urban centre, yielding a community that is both inner city and agricultural in nature. When Dickens is removed from maps, Bonbon decides to take action. Raised by a psychology professor who experimented on him, and with a love of farming, Bonbon undertakes a wild series of plans that involve re-segregating Dickens with the help of an aging child star who played a minor role in Little Rascals and who now insists on calling himself Bonbon's slave, as a way of receiving free beatings.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty is characterized by a frantic erudition and a gleeful willingness to offend. Beatty unearths seemingly every single offensive stereo-type and racial slur along his stream-of-conscious way. I spent the first third of this book hating it, but by the end I appreciated Beatty's chutzpah and brilliance, although I never really fell in love (or even like). The Sellout reminds me of Infinite Jest (the 600 pages that I managed to read, that is) with tennis and drug addiction replaced with racism and African American culture.

You'd rather be here than in Africa. The trump card all narrow-minded nativists play. If you put a cupcake to my head, of course, I'd rather be here than any place in Africa, though I hear Johannesburg ain't that bad and the surf on the Cape Verdean beaches is incredible. However, I'm not so selfish as to believe that my relative happiness, including, but not limited to, twenty-four-hour access to chili burgers, Blu-ray, and Aeron office chairs is worth generations of suffering. I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalizing that, in the end, the generations of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great-grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is.

Beatty's prose is head-long and references everything from hip-hop to medieval scientists. He's also very funny. What kept me from loving The Sellout was that the quick intelligence of the writing style took such precedence over the plot and characterization; the people in this book exist only as foils for Beatty's wit. That wit, however, is impressive and I did like how his female characters were never less than his male characters, and the female love interest was one of the most complex and real characters, while also remaining within Beatty's exaggerated style. In the end, while I was impressed by The Sellout, I also think that I am not a part of the intended audience. As an African-American comedian yells at a white couple sitting in the front row of a black comedy club, Do I look like I'm fucking joking with you? This shit ain't for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
I enjoyed it. The language is, well, it is what it is and fit the story. A story of post racism in the United States told by the narrator. It takes place around LA and the narrator is farming animals and fruits. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, the author does not like that people see the book as comic as he feels it is away of failing to address the issues that the book raises. So, what are the issues? Is the issues that some blacks hang on to racism? Is it that racism is still alive but more hidden like the doing away with Dickens? Will this story be the next Booker? I think not.… (more)
LibraryThing member annbury
This brilliant book is satire of the first order, examining racism in "post-racial" America by turning history on its head -- a black man finds himself a slave-owner, and sets out to reintroduce segregation in his neighborhood. It is screamingly funny; I found myself bubbling with laughter (some of it uncomfortable laughter) from start to finish. And the author's use of language is amazing -- he plays with words and dialects and cultural references like a manic juggler, but somehow manages to keep all the balls spinning until he decides to put them down. And this is all within the context of a novel that I found touching and engrossing. AND it makes you think, at least it made me think. I expect I shall read it again before long, and look forward to reading the author's other works.… (more)
LibraryThing member KatyBee
Thoughts about this scalding tragicomic novel? The best, tightest crazed writing full of devastating mirrors and windows. It’s so smart and it leaves deep welts. I was very glad it was included in the 2016 Morning News Tournament of Books. More importantly, congratulations to author Paul Beatty for winning the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. From Beatty, quoted from an interview about the book: “…There’s a special kind of weirdo who’s going to appreciate it...”… (more)
LibraryThing member libbromus
This book gave me a whirlwind glimpse into a culture I'm likely never to know first-hand, barring reincarnation. The author is painfully, frightfully, mind-bogglingly clever, witty, wry, and learned. He heaps satire upon irony upon subculture stereotypes with ease. I wish I knew better what he was talking about, what the joke was, because I'm sure it would have been 10 times funnier. I think the people who do understand his flow inherently are lucky, but maybe they wouldn't think so. It probably takes a special sort of life experience (not all unicorns and daisies) to really get this guy.… (more)
LibraryThing member sberson
Intermittently brilliant, well written satire. A very smart dude!
LibraryThing member danieljayfriedman
". . . I'm not so selfish as to believe that my relative happiness, including, but not limited to, twenty-four-hour access to chili burgers, Blu-ray, and Aeron office chairs is worth generations of suffering. I seriously doubt that some slave ship ancestor, in those idle moments between being raped and beaten, was standing knee-deep in their own feces rationalizing that, in the end, the generations of of murder, unbearable pain and suffering, mental anguish, and rampant disease will all be worth it because someday my great-great-great-great-grandson will have Wi-Fi, no matter how slow and intermittent the signal is." p. 219… (more)
LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This book won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and was a great book. It is a satire and very absurdist and was funny, inventive, great writing. It was full of great cultural references many of them were like great insider jokes. The premise of a home schooled black man who is in front of the Supreme Court because of bringing back slavery and segregation to his town of Dickens, California(an urban L.A mythical town) is very wild. It touches on race and all that it entails. The language might offend some but I strongly recommend this book. A real gem.… (more)
LibraryThing member Dreesie
Well, that was quite the satire. A little too much for me, it largely made me feel uncomfortable. But I guess most satire makes me feel that way.

The way Me was raised--homeschooled by his psychologist father using a black-centric curriculum and cruel experiments on his own son just made me sad. I see the satire, but I don't find it funny.

What is funny--his descriptions of LA. Surfing as a black man in Redondo vs Venice vs Malibu. The blue neighborhood signs. The Don streets. The busses. Gentrification. Beatty knows LA (but he lives in NY per the book jacket), and he can get right to the point.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty (read 8 Nov 2016) I read this because it won the Booker prize in 2016. It is the 38th such winner I have read. 45 books have won the Booker so you can see I have read most of them. As is often true as of such winners (e.g., Vernon God Little won a Booker) I found this book disgusting in its language: Not only was there the usual obscenities in great profusion, but the n-word was used much, not only in quoted speech but in the non-quoted narrative. The book is laid in Los Angeles and tells of a black man abused deliberately by his educated father in order to teach the son to be able to endure what he will encounter in life. Towards the end of the book it did get a bit better, and the language improved a bit, so I give it one star instead of a half star. It is certainly not a fun book to read.… (more)
LibraryThing member chrisblocker
Regrettably, I'm running way behind on my Man Booker reads for this year. Only twelve days remain until the prize is awarded and I still have four books to go. I doubt I'll be able to get through them all, but I'm still making an attempt to do so.

Of the six contenders, The Sellout was the title I least looked forward to reading. It was billed as the comedic, absurdist addition to the list, and absurdism and I don't always get along. Five pages in, I was rolling my eyes, dreading the remaining 285 pages. Once the story started to develop and I recognized Beatty's intelligence and wit, however, I was pulled in.

The Sellout is the story of a black man in California who takes a slave and makes many efforts to segregate his community. It's a poignant satire that addresses racial identity and its place in film, law, education, and society in general. While many of the observations Beatty makes are difficult to swallow, they are nonetheless insightful. All this is wrapped in a tragicomedic story dripping with sarcasm. Again, not my thing, but I was actually kind of liking this. Although I'm not well-versed in the genre, I think it bears considerable similarity to the work of David Foster Wallace or Adam Levin.

By the end, however, I was exhausted. The irony does wear thin in the final chapters and I believe it wouldn't have hurt this novel to have been more tightly trimmed in the last seventy pages.

I think it's unlikely Beatty will take the Man Booker Prize this year. As I stated in my review of Eileen, the Prize will be heavily scrutinized when it finally selects an American author, so I think the year that it finally does will be a year when the American selection is by far the best. Though I have yet to read any of the non-American contenders, I'm confident that one or two will be better candidates. With its relevance to current events and its more tightly woven story, I think The Sellout stands a better chance than Eileen, but I wouldn't put my money on either. Then again, Bob Dylan just won the Novel Prize for Literature, so all bets are off.
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LibraryThing member Laura400
Brilliant, fantastic, original, intelligent and thought-provoking book. I loved reading it so much I postponed finishing it, because I didn't want it to end. Blisteringly funny in parts, also scathing, and deeply serious in other parts (and still scathing). And just so true. He's so smart and such a good writer. The characters jump off the page. It's fiery, not languid and detached.

Okay, it ran out of steam a little at the end, maybe, but who cares. It's like an album of music -- not every track is the same, there are slower tracks and faster tracks and tracks you put on repeat, and tracks you pay less attention to. The Sellout still is the best book I've read all year. Masterpiece.
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LibraryThing member booklove2
Mr. Paul Beatty takes fiction and throws it upside down, reinvents it. Paul Beatty annihilates with funny here on every page, much as Fran Ross did in her much underappreciated book 'Oreo'. Fran Ross would be proud of this book, even if in some sad reality she only influenced Paul Beatty's writing (possibly this is the case). But both writers use humor to undercut such sadness. Something like Bonbon saying a Swedish phrase to his Swedish sheep yet not knowing what it means is something I could see Ross writing. I had to look up so many things in both books, but it is essential to do so. How can you not have empathy for a character who worries about everything and everyone? AND this character segregates a school and owns a slave. Beatty slays with humor but I hope the humor isn't just there to hide the justifiable anger and sadness that the still happening and always insane racism brings up. Black people should be angry at the present racism and the racism from the past, just as every white person should have guilt for any present racism happening in the world, racism in the past, and at the very least, guilt for the privileges they don't even know they have just from their skin color. But then in an interview, Beatty talks about survivor's guilt. Bam, perspective. A black writer shouldn't HAVE to use humor to hide anger for the ridiculous problem of racism. But maybe that is where the humor comes from: the ridiculousness of racism and that it never should have existed in the first place. I wonder what this book without the humor would be like.
As a white girl reading this, maybe the book isn't written FOR me but I think this book is written for everyone. It's like BonBon wondering "What exactly is OUR thing?" Saying "our thing" enforces the stereotypes and categories that racism started. A reader saying this book is for me/not for me or my thing/not my thing is exactly what BonBon and Beatty are talking about. There is so much ASSUMING going on. In the world right now, justifiable defensiveness based on assumed racism BUT also assuming what someone's "things" should be just because of someone's skin color or cultural background. But I think every book should be for everyone to open eyes to all other perspectives and to have as much empathy for everyone else as BonBon has. The final page says it all. 'The Sellout' should be universal and I'm so thankful that Beatty has written it. Because of a certain newly prominent person, I vowed to devote more reading time than ever for books written by and about people of color. This book was a start that probably can't be topped. I couldn't see any other book winning the 2016 Morning News Tournament of Books even before reading it. Most of Beatty's books are here waiting for me on the shelves next to Fran Ross's 'Oreo'. I can't wait.
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LibraryThing member EBT1002
Satire is not my preferred genre of literature and The Sellout is deep satire. Beatty's bitingly humorous treatment of racism in America and the broader modern culture in which it thrives is shrewdly executed. So, this wasn't a comfortable read for me but I doubt Beatty was interested in my comfort. He is frank with his reader but he also intends to be funny. And he succeeds in both exposing the hypocrisy and idiocy of our modern culture and in allowing that, on some level, we are just plain silly. As one who lives with tremendous privilege in a country determined to deny that our history's racial history still reverberates, I felt like I was taking a painful tour through the lived experience of racial profiling, segregation, and abuse. I also laughed -- or at least chuckled -- several times.… (more)
LibraryThing member alexrichman
A very, very funny book about race in America. My favourite bits were the quips and asides rather than the tangents Beatty heads off on, which in my opinion bogged the second half down. If you're squeamish about the n-word, then it isn't for you - but if you've got a passing interest in what it is to be black in America, then grab a copy yesterday.… (more)
LibraryThing member Magatha
Fine writing, vivid imagery, really acute social commentary. It's well worth reading, but it didn't work as a novel for me. It would have been more appealing as a collection of essays, or better yet, a collection of loosely interwoven short stories.
LibraryThing member hansel714
This is how you can win a booker: write in an intense stream of consciousness mambo jumbo for a political cause--race is good, sexuality is too controversial--without much of a plot.
LibraryThing member gmmartz
Audacious... hilarious... crazy... inventive.... well-written... thought-provoking... fun... funny... goofy... strange... topical. Out of that incomplete list of descriptors of 'The Sellout', I suppose the one that sticks the best is 'thought-provoking'. It's all the others as well, but I think Mr. Beatty has important messages to get across in this novel.

If you keep up with the news and are interested in the racial issues affecting lives in this country, this is a very different 'take' that you can't miss. It's the rare book that can not only make you laugh out loud but also cause you to think deeply about an uncomfortable subject.
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