"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"--
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.
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.
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.
Every sentence is a work of sarcastic, hilarious art, but Zimmerman is right that it can be very unrelenting.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.