The sellout

by Paul Beatty

Paper Book, 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)



Call number



New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

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
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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 jwhenderson
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, is an African-American novel of satire on race relations in the United States. The story is told by an unnamed, black narrator who is coming before the Supreme Court on charges of slave holding and re-instituting segregation. The narrator recounts to the Supreme Court
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the events that brought him to the present time.

Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens - on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles - the narrator 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 have 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 realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled 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.

After a while the novel began, for this reader, to become extremely tiresome to the point of utter splenetic prose. What plot there was lacked sufficient direction and a sense of purpose. This resulted from repetition of a few basic themes established very early on. At times it even felt like it had degenerated into a series of loosely connected rants and personal grievances in the form of chapters. It became a very trying read.

The writing began with a certain authority; it was compelling and convincing, however as the narrative progressed it did not pick up any momentum but lingered on similar ideas and stayed very stationary. Some of the comic moments seemed forced as the narrator repeated themes over and again. The Sellout won The Man Booker Prize in 2016 and despite my acherontic experience reading the book I can see why. It is a very timely piece, addressing many of the problems blacks face in a country that has supposedly moved on from its original sin of slavery. Segregation has ended, racism is officially at an all-time low, but the issues remain.

That’s more-or-less the story, but for this reader the best aspect of The Sellout is Beatty’s language, sentence-by-sentence, even word-by-word, instead of the plot. There are literally hundreds of puns, non-sequiturs, and squeaky analogies, sometimes literally piled up on top of one another: “These are the times that fry one’s souls.” “Forty acres and a fool.” In spite of that, the satirical style in which it was told offset much of what the book attempted to do. The satire in this novel is savage and the black idiom is difficult to follow for someone unfamiliar with it. I can only recommend this novel to those readers who are ready for a difficult reading experience that may or may not be worth the trip. It was not for me.
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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 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
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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 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.
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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 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
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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 sparemethecensor
This is not an enjoyable read, but it is an important one. Recommended for those who enjoy satire, experimental novels, and immersive books requiring your full attention.
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,
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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.
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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
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and would have been better as a collection of fables or short stories.
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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
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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
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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
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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 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
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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 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
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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.
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LibraryThing member sberson
Intermittently brilliant, well written satire. A very smart dude!
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
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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.
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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
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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 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
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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.
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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.
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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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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Like a cross between Chris Rock and Philip Roth. Or Chuck Palahniuk and Richard Pryor. Or just Paul Beatty all over. This is a novel that effervesces, full of energy both zestful and angry, that has a lot to say and to think about and almost very nearly accomplishes something remarkable. The
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eponymous hero of the novel, once his bona fides are laid out, sets about re-segregating the nominal city of Dickens which has been incorporated into greater Los Angeles and effectively effaced. He doesn’t so much have a plan, at least initially, as merely a series of good intentions and a firm belief in social engineering. So when he adds an official-looking “whites only” decal to the priority seats on a city bus, all for benefit of an elderly black actor who has curious memories of the “good old days”, the consequences are far-reaching and suggest further possibilities, some of which can be guessed at and others which are truly surprising.

Beatty writes with such verve that his enthusiasm often gets the better of the narrative. And while that is very fun for about 50 pages, it begins to get tiresome eventually. The narrative is at best ramshackle and you feel when you read it that pretty much anything could happen. That’s a good thing. But that too begins to wear. And despite the closure that the protagonist claims he seeks, there may be no viable closure for the issue of race in America. But as here, with enough inventiveness and hope and determination, there is what will stand in for closure for a time.

Not “uproariously funny” as some back-cover blurbs would have you believe. But quirky and thought-provoking and periodically, yes, very funny. Gently recommended.
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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
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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.
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LibraryThing member bodachliath
Satire is a difficult genre to assess and review, particularly when it is so tightly bound to a culture one does not share. On the positive side, this book is often very funny, and is full of ideas and snipes at deserving targets. Over the length of a novel, though, the tone is somewhat relentless,
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and the story does not seem to have enough weight to sustain the interest - it seems more like a series of set pieces. Not a book to read if you are easily offended either, but the issues Beatty addresses about the state of race relations in America 50 years after Martin Luther King cannot be faced without such boldness. So an interesting book to have read, but maybe not quite the stuff of Booker winners, and I hope there are better ones on the longlist.
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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
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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...”
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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
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to be black in America, then grab a copy yesterday.
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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
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(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 browner56
The Sellout opens with Me, a black man who has inherited an urban farm in a southeastern suburb of Los Angeles, sitting before the Supreme Court. He has been prosecuted for being a slave owner and trying to segregate the community schools in an attempt to literally put his hometown of Dickens back
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on the map. While he waits for his case—Me v. the United States of America, sort of a modern-day contrast to Plessy v. Ferguson—to be called, he passes the time by smoking some of the artisanal marijuana that he and Hominy Jenkins, his self-anointed slave and former Little Rascals sidekick, grow alongside their watermelons. The rest of the novel then provides the backfill story of how Me came to find himself in such a position, beginning with his upbringing by a psychologist father with some unusual parenting techniques to his emergence as a reluctant social activist for a largely apathetic population.

Does this sound like the outline of some kind of bizarre update of To Kill a Mockingbird? Well, it is hardly that. Instead, The Sellout is a wildly comical satire on the fractured state of race relations today, one of the most deadly serious topics I can imagine. Paul Beatty does a remarkable job of filling the tale with a dizzying number of historical and cultural references while taking absolutely no prisoners when examining the stereotypes and hypocrisies that exist on all sides of the issue. Along the way, the reader is treated to many laugh-out-loud scenes while being exposed to more creative uses of the n-word (and, trust me, there are a lot of them) than you would think possible. Although its underlying plot is a little thin, this is a book that delivers a powerful message. It is also a novel that really could only have been written by an author who is (1) black, (2) deeply insightful, and (3) hysterically funny. Fortunately, Beatty is all of those things.
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Original publication date



0374260508 / 9780374260507
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