I read The Sellout for the Literary Roadhouse Bookclub podcast that will be live in a few days. Coming into this book, I had no idea who Paul Beatty was and what to expect. In short… the book in brilliant.
I consider The Sellout an important addition to the African American Literary Cannon. It is written in an experimental style that has more in common with Slam poetry, Jazz or Orlando by Virginia Woolf than a contemporary novel. It can be hard to follow and demands a readers full attention and trust. Because of the style, it lends itself well to audio book or reading aloud. I did both as I alternated between audio book and ebook. I enjoyed the audio book a great deal as the narrator understood the content and matched tones to subtle historical references. In short, this is one of the best books I’ve read in the last couple years.
That said, this novel is cutting acerbic satire, and race can be a difficult topic in the most careful of hands. By diving full bore into satire, Paul is able to approach ideas and questions that we are often too polite to speak about. He also gives voice to “inside voice” ideas that aren’t to be spoken of publically where non-minorities can hear. Such as the idea that black people might just be better off building their own cities, economies ect because “whites are toxic” and giving up on the idea that racism can be cured. I have memories of hearing Farrakhan speeches as a child and listening to my father and his friends talk about isolationism or leaving the US altogether… the plot of this story is ridiculous but the core emotions will be very familiar and leave some surprised to see them dissected so bluntly. This is important and uncomfortable. He gets away with the difficult content by deft use of gallows humor. There is a LOT of cursing and racial slurs. They are in context and often used with multiple nuances and cultural references. In my reading, the racial slurs lend authenticity to the narrators cultural experience and allow the reader to get past those words until they are approaching highly uncomfortable ideas head on that can’t be approached when trying to be polite.
The plot is absurd and not at all the point. A black man raised by an abusive sociologist grows up to find his town literally disappeared. This is an experience that features literally in African American history as towns that were bombed or destroyed in other ways by white neighbors. It is also an idea in the figurative sense… if we are post racial do we cease to exist? What exactly IS black. The narrator decides to bring back his town and in the process re-segregates the town and somehow ends up with a slave who doesn’t really do any work that he has to pay Dominatrixes to whip. Eventually he is arrested and the case goes to the supreme court, and this is all intertwined with criticisms of black intellectuals, minstral shows, entertainment industry and black culture.
Personally, I didn’t find anything about the book offensive but that is probably because I’ve grown up looking at and talking about race relations from all sides and have a pretty acerbic sense of humor myself. This is a book that relishes in its inheritance from uncensored barber shop conversations and 70’s comedians. So while the language can be crude, rough, racist, and sexist, the lessons are just the opposite and I am sure this book will still be read in 50 years as a classic right alongside beloved and invisible man.