Since Paul Beatty’s hilarious debut novel, The White Boy Shuffle, in 1996, the literary world has taken notice of his intellectual brilliance, acerbic wit, and bold commentary on all things American. In his latest book, The Sellout, his first novel in seven years, he has outdone himself, turning African-American literature on its ear with some of the most searing and penetrating insights on race, culture, and society seen on the page in many years.
It’s stand-up comedy at its best, worthy of a ring-savvy Dick Gregory, a raunchy Redd Foxx, a folksy Moms Mabley, and the hip urban truth-telling of Richard Pryor and Chris Rock. It’s howling laughter that ends with a serious face.
The ever-humble but highly capable Beatty, a native of West Los Angeles, has assembled The Sellout in an astounding collection of images and words, mainly told in flashback, like a masterful Charlie solo.
Parker solo played backwards. Our narrator, Bonbon, awaits his fate in the all-powerful corridors of the U.S. Supreme Court, fortified by his maverick academic father’s example. The shooting death of the father at the hands of the police leaves his son confused.
Beatty, the author, centers the action when his fictional world mirrors our real one with the cops recently gunning down Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Freddie Gray, triggering urban unrest. The writer says he wasn’t trying to sermonize or drive home a point, but he does justice to the issues of race, culture and politics.
Even in the opening lines of his insightful novel, Bonbon attempts to convince the world to look beyond his skin color to his humanity. He stares straight forward and explains his existence: “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 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.”
However, the town of Dickens, supposedly inspired by Beatty’s hometown of Compton, California, has been erased from a map, a case of cultural gerrymandering. With the support of Marpessa, his former girlfriend, and Hominy Jenkins, the last remaining Little Rascal, Bonbon wants to pump new life into slavery and segregation, hoping to avoid the ongoing corruption and slaughter of his beloved community.
His narrator is willing to take his case to the highest court of the land. Beatty is very wise to take the reader through step-by-step of his outlandish theory of racial self-preservation. He’s very conscious of the old school Negroes who would welcome the warm embrace of Jim Crow and all that implies back again. We were better off before the Ofays got to us.
Beatty doesn’t dwell on all of the evils found in the black community, the feverish gun violence, the murderous duels between gangs, the dysfunctional families found there. Instead, he sets up a chorus of African-American voices to speak in various tones on significant subjects, sometimes whispering and sometimes shrill, but always with a sense of irony, jokes, and satire. This book will make the reader think and weigh a few sensitive topics between chuckles.
Often, the one-liners flood the mind to the perilous point of overload, but this is according to plan. As the late funnyman Pigmeat Markham used to say, burn that mess into their lazy minds and they won’t either forget it or ignore it. And that’s Beatty does expertly and effectively in every sentence, paragraph, and chapter. He doesn’t let up. He will not let the reader off the hook. He rubs your face in it.
As the reefer-smoking Bonbon gets a few tokes in before his judicial session, he ponders on his existence as “a direct descendant of Dred Scott,” who was in the eyes of the Court simply property…with no rights the white man was bound to respect.”
In the same breath, he wonders about 2 Live Crew front man Luther Campbell’s obsession with partying and his anthem, “Me So Horny,” that mocks the white American fascination with “cullud” sexuality, big butts, and soulful twerking. After all, the reader must remember Beatty, a low-key B-boy, comes from Compton, the fabled home of such hip-hop talent as NWA, DJ Quik, The Game, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. Throughout this novel, its characters show the emotional and spiritual damage done to them by a society who neither cares for them or treats them with respect.
Like master satirist Mark Twain before him, Beatty questions the basic myths of his country and community, including the hollowed images of the civil rights movement: “The marchers on Washington become civil right zombies, one hundred thousand strong, somnambulating lockstep onto the mall, stretching out their stiff, needy fingers for their pound of flesh.”
If Bonbon’s Pops, the “Nigger Whisperer” with his valiant psychological ideals and his wacky local think tank, the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals doesn’t tickle your fancy, then our narrator will do his best with his piercing zingers: “Bemoan being middle-class and colored in a police state that protects only rich white people and movie stars of all races, though I can’t think of any Asian-American ones.”
Beatty’s supporting cast such as Foy Cheshire, Hominy Jenkins, King Cuz, and the beloved Marpessa have their wicked say, but Bonbon has all of the stand-out lines the reader remembers long after the page is turned, such as his take on Hollywood: “Hollywood had all the blackness it needed in the demi-whiteness of Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, the brooding Negritude of James Dean, and the broad, gravity-defying, Venus hot-to-trot roundness of Marilyn Monroe’s ass.”
Nothing is off-limits from Beatty’s harsh glance, including some punch lines delivered by the thuggish King Cuz about the female species: “When a white bitch got problems, she’s a damsel in distress! When a black bitch got problems, she’s a welfare cheat and a burden on society. How come you never see any black damsels? Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your weave!”
At times, Beatty’s literary style is a combination of the late Albert Goldman and Lester Bangs on acid, the paranoid William Burroughs on alert in his darkened bunker, the twin satirical verve of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut when he gets his blood up. The firestorm of pop references, name dropping, and gangsta ditties from Billboard only make Beatty’s heavily revised barbed truths much more timely and provocative.
When Beatty gets around to the essence of blackness, unmitigated blackness, there’s no doubt that the writer, educated at Boston University where he studied psychology, knows of what he writes: “It’s Tiparillos, chitterlings, and a night in jail. It’s the crossover dribble and wearing house shoes outside…It’s our beautiful hands and our fucked up feet. Unmitigated blackness is simply not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black-and-white Godard, Celine, Gong Li, David Hammons, Bjork, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations. Unmitigated blackness is essays passing for fiction.”
Beatty’s The Sellout is written brilliantly and boldly to spark a real dialogue about race and culture among black and white readers. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, the author said he wrote the book to “make myself flinch.” Not only did he succeed in making himself flinch, he charmed his readers with surprising wit and humor to think and flinch with this extraordinary novel.
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