Book Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

the selloutA Guest Post written by James Fenchurch

Some books are easy to begin reading. Not so with this one. I felt I was fighting my way into it, but once I had survived the surreal opening skirmishes I found myself tuning in to the wacky world of satire created by Paul Beatty. Once I was in there it romped along, delighting and surprising me in equal measure. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud as I became immersed in the lives and relationships of a really unusual cast of characters.   

The central plot idea in the book is bizarre, with the black protagonist (whose real name is never revealed) deciding to reverse history and reluctantly become a slave-owner (begged to do so by the ancient Hominy Jenkins). He is still farming on the edge of LA, in an area originally allocated to agriculture but in which he is now the only person trying to grow fruit and raise animals.

Against the background of his unusual upbringing (with his experimental psychologist father) we see him now try to revive the fortunes of the city of Dickens by reinstating segregation and associated measures, such as twinning.  He submits a request to an agency that specialises in producing three cities for every request. When he finds that Dickens has been rejected by all three of the compatible options that came up, including Juarez and Chernobyl, he asks why the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo has rejected the request:

“Don’t tell me Kinshasa, the poorest city in the poorest country in the world, a place where the average per capita income is one goat bell, two bootleg Michael Jackson cassette tapes, and three sips of potable water per year, thinks we’re too poor to associate with.”
“No, they think Dickens is too black.”

When I flicked through the book in the bookshop I remember thinking a broad mind would be needed for some of the language used, and I braced myself. However, the profanities used, and especially his use of the ‘n’ word, which is woven into the fabric of the book, weirdly began to feel right. As a white Northern European, although uncomfortable at the start, I found it refreshing that the writer could dive so deeply into aspects of race which are fundamental to the story.

While telling a fabulously rich and hilarious tale, by the end I realized Beatty had also exposed me to serious analysis under the cover of comedy. The non-American reader may be at a slight disadvantage through not being familiar with some of the cultural resonances but I don’t feel it prevented me from enjoying the book, which I very much recommend.

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