Novels about race and societal discrimination are gaining prominence these days, largely due to troubling reports of horrible treatment being meted out to black people by police and the recent surge in crimes against them. With novels like The Underground Railroad and Homegoing getting rave reviews this year, The Sellout would feel like a shoo-in for The Man Booker Prize. However, after reading this, I would say that’s not the case. The Sellout is the most biting and explicit critique of America’s delusion of equality in recent times. It is quite a controversial novel, not only because of the fact that the N-word is dropped on almost every page. Frankly speaking, The Man Booker prize is usually awarded to bulky tomes that address prevailing social issues in the most ostentatious language possible. The Sellout is anything but ostentatious – on the contrary it’s extremely inappropriate and hard-hitting. Beatty has no qualms about calling a spade a spade and he drives the point home without soft-pedalling the hard truths.
The book begins with our black narrator being summoned at the U.S Supreme Court on grave charges of owning a slave and imposing segregation in his hometown of Dickens, California. From then on, the story rewinds and we are treated to a quasi-bildungsroman of our narrator. He had a really unusual childhood, being brought up single-handedly by his father who happened to be a social scientist and “founder of Liberation Psychology.” His childhood was spent being the guinea pig for his father’s bizarre social experiments, all of them designed to demonstrate the racial prejudice of Americans against African Americans. The details of these experiments are one of the high points of this book and side-splittingly hilarious. His father is eventually killed “accidentally”, meaning he was shot by the LA police force after which our narrator goes on to imposing segregation in the bus and school of his hometown.
Beatty riffs on every black stereotype – the clichéd depiction of black characters in movies and in books, the stock not-really-all-that-attractive-but-she’s-black beauty pageant winners, and intellectual African Americans attempts to sugarcoat racial epithets (particularly the N-word) to make history seem more palatable. Our narrator, and by association the writer, derides futile attempts at rewriting history by modifying Mark Twain or other literature which uses such terms. “Like, why blame Mark Twain because you don’t have the patience and courage to explain to your children that the “n-word” exists and that during the course of their sheltered little lives they may one day be called a “n***”…no one will ever refer to them as “little black euphemisms”, so welcome to the American lexicon”.
Beatty takes potshots at the inherent racist tendencies of Americans which they try to gloss over with bogus rhetoric like ‘equality for all’. He talks about how L.A is one of the most racist cities in the world, how luxury car adverts use black models to galvanize lazy white males to get off their recliners for letting a lowly black person have a piece of their American Dream and the right to superficial freedom of speech which everyone apparently has now. The narrator wonders what does it even mean to be offended. It’s not an emotion. What does one do when offended except for stating the fact that he is offended in a sober voice and getting away in a huff.
One of my favorite bits from the book (trust me, there are many!) is one where a character goes off about the description of black women in literature. As a South Asian, I’m always miffed about the inadvertently comical description of the skin tones of any non-white characters in literature, so it was pleasing to see him address it with his usual candid wit.
“Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, cafe-au-lait, graham-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists”.
Apart from racism against black, Beatty also sheds light on the racial prejudice against Mexicans, which in a way goes one step beyond discrimination against black. How “Too many Mexicans” have become so much of a part of Californian vernacular that blacks, and even some Mexicans, use the phrase as rationalization for their own slacking.
The only risk of writing a satirical novel is to avoid it becoming a shtick, a pitfall that The Sellout commendably sidesteps. Paul Beatty has wit to spare and his shrewd, outrageously funny yet profound social commentary is immensely readable. Those looking for a well-crafted story will be disappointed, however, as the book deviates from the story of the narrator many times, with Beatty going off on a tangent about random, albeit interesting, tirades about race.
The Sellout is a compulsively readable and relentlessly entertaining read which at times seems like binge-watching the best stand-up comedy routines. At heart it is a serious, poignant commentary on racial prejudice and just how deeply entrenched it is in American psyche. It mocks the sham that is “post-racial” America and provides a timely wake-up call to the USA regarding its treatment of African Americans and Latinos.