books, People of Color, Reading

“The Sellout” by Paul Beatty

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”

9780374260507_custom-a5577e692c31aaaec861e24510041dd8dc38b8d2-s400-c85Paul Beatty’s razor sharp wit and biting satire will have you snorting and groaning on nearly every page. Winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize, “The Sellout” spins the sardonic tale of “Bonbon”, alternately known as “Sellout”, a black man born and raised in the hamlet of Dickens on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Bonbon, whose real name is never shared,  was the subject of his father’s racially charged and ethically questionable sociological experiments for most of his life. His father treated him as a lab rat, more interested in proving his own mad-scientist theories than in nurturing a son. When his father is randomly killed in a police shoot-out, Bonbon is finally free of his stricture and control, finding himself adrift in a world that is increasingly disheartening and unfamiliar.

“People eat the shit you shovel them. And sometimes, when I pull up to the drive-thru window on horseback or return the disbelieving stares of a convertible carload of out-of-town vatos pointing at the black vaquero grazing his livestock in the trash-strewn fields underneath the power lines that stretch Eiffel Tower-like alongside West Greenleaf Boulevard, I think about all the lines of ad infinitum bullshit my father shoveled down my throat, until his dreams became my dreams.”

Dickens, Bonbon’s only home, has become such a threat to the image of California that the powers that be have literally erased it from the map. This poor and violent neighborhood, home to rival gangs and underperforming schools, is also home to a group of black literati, men who meet regularly to debate the arcane and the urgent. This elite “club” – the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals – struggles to address the state of Dickens and its inhabitants, often in controversial and seemingly hollow ways. One member in particular has decided to rewrite every American classic to frame black characters in a more positive light – think “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protege, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit”, “Uncle Tom’s Condo”, “The Point Guard in the Rye”, “The Great Blacksby”. Bonbon, a legacy member of this group, fears the dissolution of his home so much that he has decided to embark on his own outrageous solution – reinstating segregation. In Bonbon’s extreme thoughts, elevating and exacerbating racial tensions is the only way to reignite ambition and achievement among Dickens’ faltering residents.

Paul Beatty is a comic genius. His indictment of racial tensions and societal norms is brilliantly original, wildly funny, and deeply affecting. It’s a wonder his voice is so clear with his tongue planted so firmly in his cheek. This book is a must read, bringing valid and serious criticism couched in much-needed levity.

“But in the end we found it impossible to ignore the impassioned pleas of the Lost City of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males). Others state categorically that the walls of the locale have been irreparably breached by hip-hop and Roberto Bolano’s prose. That the popularity of the spicy tuna roll and a black American president were to white male domination what the smallpox blankets were to Native American existence. Those inclined to believe in the free will and the free market argue that the Lost City of White Male Privilege was responsible for its own demise, that the constant stream of contradictory religious and secular edicts from on high confused the highly impressionable white male. Reduced him to a state of such severe social and psychic anxiety that he stopped fucking. Stopped voting. Stopped reading. And, most important, stopped thinking that he was the end-all, be-all, or at least knew enough to pretend not to be so in public. But in any case, it became impossible to walk the streets of the Lost City of White Male Privilege, feeding your ego by reciting mythological truisms like ‘We built this country!’ when all around you brown men were constantly hammering and nailing, cooking world-class French meals, and repairing your cars. You couldn’t shout ‘America, love it or leave it!’ when deep down inside you longed to live in Toronto.”


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