I’ve beensitting on this review for a couple of weeks, struggling to know what to write. The book won the Man Booker prize, which often means a challenging read. After reading the book I watched an interview of Beatty to get a sense of what he was like. He was charming, yet deflecting. I read another interview and found that he truly focuses on the craft of writing. He’s not prolific. But the attention to every word is evident in The Sellout. The book begins with a prologue. “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 good-by to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this county, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”
The Sellout is satire about race. It takes place in semi-rural Dickens outside of L.A., a community that has been wiped from the map. Thenarrator sets out to reinstate his hometown, and while he’s at it reinstates slavery and segregates the local bus, hospital, businesses and school.
The Sellout is funny, and I might have found it hilarious 12 months ago. But now it’s unnerving. Perhaps the book is full of WTFs, but hey, each of the last 20 some odd days has included a real life WTF moment. A year ago everything in this book would seem fantastic and unreal. Now?
The narrator, alternatively referred to as Bonbon or “the Sellout,” grew up as his father’s social science guinea pig. After failing his father’s
expectations, his dad puts him to work farming. Bonbon is a great farmer. His best crop is weed, but he’s known for his fruits, including of course watermelon, because that’s how this book roles.
Cops shoot his father for no apparent reason because they don’t need one, and the narrator buys the farm with the proceeds of the settlement. His neighbor, the last surviving Little Rascal, insists that he become the narrator’s slave. There are hilarious characters that inhabit Dickens, or at least visit the Dum Donut Shop, the intellectual hub and local comedy club.
Near the end of the book, the narrator is at an open mike night at the Dum Dum. The place is full. A white couple comes in, sits in front and joins in on the laughs. The comedian calls them out, asks what they’re laughing at and orders them out of the club with
“this shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!” This articulated what I had been feeling all along as I read the book. I’m white, is it ok for me to laugh?
I believe Beatty would say yes. This book lets the reader look at racial issues through the lens of humor. It doesn’t laugh at police killings, or segregation or slavery, rather it laughs at how we talk and think about these issues. It’s too smart to miss. Read this book, this shit is for everyone.