“Being black ain't what it used to be.”
Winning the Booker Prize isn’t always a sign of a book’s quality but it always ensures a dramatic spike in sales. Paul Beatty’s brilliant satire of Blackness in a small Los Angeles suburb would probably have passed most British readers by had it not been given the prestigious award recently. And what a pity that would have been because The Sellout is one of the funniest books, one of the most sophisticated and satisfying comedies I have read in a very long time.
The novel’s narrator, Bonbon Me (aka The Sellout), is a black farmer from a small town south of Los Angeles called Dickens. The story opens with Bonbon sitting in front of the Supreme Court, defending himself in the aptly named case Me v The United States of America: “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…”
What, the reader wonders, could a weed-smoking, black manual worker from one of the roughest neighbourhoods in the US have done to wind up in front of the Supreme Court? Those tempted to follow the stereotypes will be disappointed to find that Bonbon is not standing on a drug charge, or a murder, or even petty gangland violence. No, his crime is more novel than that: owning an elderly slave and attempting to reinstate good ol’ Jim Crow-style segregation in parts of Dickens.
From that starting point, the novel then unravels the set of circumstances that brought Bonbon to his date with the Supreme Court through a series of highly amusing vignettes that show snippets of his life and that of the community that surrounds him, and explores, in part, the "cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent."
A farmer who grows perfect watermelons, is bad in bed, can’t tell a funny joke, and rolls into town on a horse rather than a tricked-out Cadillac, Bonbon is an anti-stereotype of the Black Male in popular culture. Raised by his academic father to eschew both Whiteness and stereotypical Blackness, as a child Bonbon was often subjected to reworkings of famous psychological studies at the hands of his father, which will have anyone who has studied psychology laughing hard enough to drop a lung.
“When I was seven months,” he tells us, “Pops placed objects like toy police cars, cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and a copy of The Economist in my bassinet, but instead of conditioning me with a deafening clang, I learned to be afraid of the presented stimuli because they were accompanied by him taking out the family .38 Special and firing several window-rattling rounds into the ceiling, while shouting, ‘Nigger, go back to Africa!’ loud enough to make himself heard over the quadraphonic console stereo blasting ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in the living room.”
Later in life, Bonbon adopts ageing actor and ever-present in the Dickens community, Hominy, who was one of TV’s original Little Rascals and appears to have a complex that causes him to wish subjugation upon himself. Bonbon indulges him, taking the grateful Hominy on as a slave to work his farm and sending him off for beatings at the hands of a local dominatrix every few weeks. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, and Hominy revels in the regressive treatment. Bonbon also sees Marpessa, a former girlfriend turned occasional unsatisfied lover. Marpessa drives the local bus and takes as little crap from Bonbon as she does from the customers who ride her bus. Between these scant attachments, growing his delectable fruit, and occasionally attending the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a black group who meet at the local doughnut shop, Bonbon’s life sounds like the fairly mundane running out of time by a man who knows he is going nowhere (‘eventually, like all 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’ve been there since the ’68 quake.’) but when, one day, Dickens drops off the map completely, becoming a non-state, Bonbon is spurred into action. Launching a campaign to reclaim his community, he paints a line around the border where Dickens used to begin and end and finds that segregation, in many forms, has a lot of positive effects. Perhaps Hominy is not the only one in Dickens who craves a bit of good ol’ fashioned racism.
For those who noted that the winner of this year’s Booker was a work on racism in modern America, the brief outline of the book above may well have punctured a few illusions; To Kill a Mockingbird this ain’t (and all the better for it, too). Rather than the rigid and patronising morality of that classic, The Sellout is challenging beyond comparison, and made all the more complex for being a satire where nothing can be taken at face value. As a young white British reader, I suspect that more than a handful of allusions or jokes passed me by, but even in my ignorance I gorged on the prose all the same. However, it’s possible this book was not intended for me – the white liberal – at all. The final scene that Bonbon’s narrative relates is of a black comedian ejecting a white couple from a local comedy gig after they had broken the black monopoly of the audience. The comedian’s words as he sends the white couple on their way should ring in the reader’s ears as they close the final page of the book: “Get out,” he tells the white couple. “This is our thing.”
What is blackness, what is ‘our thing’, and what do I have to do with any of it – does my 1/16 African-American heritage give me the right to laugh at 1/16 of the jokes?
Pontificating liberal angst aside, literature is for anyone who happens to connect with it and so I won’t cut short my review at the risk of talking about something that is not ‘my thing’. Incidentally, that phrase ‘our thing’ reminded me immediately of The Sopranos and other mafia stories, where the Italian-American mobsters claim to one another that the police and the rest of society are not part of ‘our thing’. The sense of a minority community wanting to exclude and segregate for its own sake certainly struck a chord and I imagine the inward-lookingness of this sentiment is common to many marginalised groups (not just marginalised races, but genders, sexualities, etc. too).
By considering exactly what it means to be Black, one gets to the heart of The Sellout. For this is a novel without plot but which weaves a deeply comedic story of a community full of people who have failed to outgrow their parents’ aspirations for them and have responded to immovability of Blackness in different ways. Hominy desires the subjugation he knew as a younger man, Marpessa goes about her business of surviving quietly, and Bonbon defies just about every stereotype of the Young Black Male. Then there is Foy Cheshire, local writer and member of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals. He is on a mission to rewrite the White canon for a black audience (The Great Blacksby), gives presentations on Empowerpoint (PowerPoint for the Black gent), and is not a fan of Bonbon (who he considers a sellout). He is also, besides being a bit of an arse, a hilarious parody of the Black Intellectual, whose heart may be in the right place but whose actions are not always of the most practical use. “If he was an autodidact he had the world's shittiest teacher,” Bonbon tells us. “Foy wasn't a tree of knowledge; he was more a bush of opinion.”
Money by Martin Amis, and I cannot think of another modern novel that can compare to its Swiftian satire, which is so challenging while still amusing (incidentally, I heard Beatty speak recently and he is keen to disagree with the label ‘satire’ for his novel, reasoning that this suggests something of more transient interest). For all that it is funny, however, The Sellout is a book that works beautifully at the sentence level. (Arguably, it works better in snippets.) Beatty’s prose flows as smooth as warm honey and you can open the book on any page and enjoy the writing. There are two caveats to this: first, there is plenty of swearing; second, there are sections that meander a bit and end up as blocks of text that are a little dense.
When dealing with systematic racism, it says a lot that Beatty can keep the reader laughing. Indeed, the book’s conclusion that America and racism are inextricably linked and that it has always been so, is a profoundly bleak sentiment that somehow doesn’t drag the comedy down but that turns the satire into a more complex and, ultimately, satisfying affair. For, how can the reader pass through the pages of The Sellout, laughing at the cartoonish racism, without being forced to acknowledge everything that makes the book possible? Its brilliant, abrasive subversion of racism is electrifying yet appalling at the same time. This is the kind of humour that makes you realise how slim and superficial most modern satire is. Certainly there are throwaway lines but so much of Beatty’s writing resonates with a deep intelligence and powerful humour that draws from the deep well of human experience.
It is not often that I make bold statements about a novel’s enduring appeal, but I firmly believe The Sellout is a timely book – an absolute tonic to the idiocy and simplicity of Trump logic – and will prove one of the most remembered books of our times. Its ceaselessly smart prose, tremendous volume of allusions, and bluntness in confronting racism make this such a brilliant novel, and on such an important topic, that The Sellout cannot but go down as one of the best books of the time and a bright point in a year that has not always been kind. A word of warning, however, to the cosy liberal (me) who sits snickering at the intellectual twists and turns of Beatty’s sublime book: wars are not won with brilliant metaphors or from armchairs far from the battlefield. This is a brilliant book but enjoying it is not the same as acting on its commentary.