The Sellout by Paul Beatty


In the middle of the prologue, I started to wonder if I was the sellout, if the joke was on me, a white middle-class woman from the Deep North. Maybe I was the sellout because I didn’t get it right away. I’ve only been to California once, briefly, and if this is a book about race, particularly blackness, it is also about California. I got lost following the text. “That incessant Black History Month loop of barking dogs, gushing fire hoses, and carbuncles oozing blood through two-dollar haircuts, colorless blood spilling down faces shiny with sweat and the light of the evening news, these are the pictures that form our collective 16mm superego. But today I’m all medulla oblongata and I can’t concentrate.” It is dense, as in two sentences per page, like David Foster Wallace, full of lists of images and references I had to look up. But then the prologue ended, the story began and it started to make sense, or else I’d gotten used to Beatty’s style. At any rate, he won me over by chapter one, when it dawned on me that the joke is on all of us. This is satire. Beatty blows the universe and all its comforting wholeness to bits so that we can laugh at it, and maybe, when the tears start to flow, they won’t all be because we guffawed so hard, but because it also hurts. By the end, I still wondered if I was like the unwelcome white woman run out of a black comedy show, laughing, guiltily. Satire is funny with consequences.

Sellout is the main character and narrator, but is he the Sellout? He’s called one by many characters, friend and foe, but he can’t be; he never sells in. Growing up on a farm just outside L.A., with a single black father, a community college sociology professor and psychiatrist, master of his own slave (by the way, Edward Jone’s Washington DC tale, The Known World, is about a black slave owner), who surfs, studies agriculture and re-founds his town, Dickens, when it’s obliterated by exurbia, he doesn’t fit any mold. The first man who calls him a sellout is the biggest one himself. Foy Chesire gets rich off of ideas he steals form Sellout’s dad. (Ex-)girlfriend, Marpessa, also calls him a sellout, but she forsakes college for motherhood, a rapper and gangster, and a bus-driving career, so, takes one to know one. Could Hominy, child actor on The Little Rascals and the slave who indentures himself to Sellout, whose idea it is to re-segregate Dickens (for which Sellout is sued in the Supreme Court), be the ultimate sellout? Perhaps Sellout is another reworked classic, like others Foy writes – The Old Black Man and the Inflatable Winnie the Pooh Swimming Pool, Measured Expectations, Middlemarch Middle of April, I’ll Have Your Money – I Swear, Of Rice and Yen, Uncle Tom’s Condo, The Adventures of Tom Soarer, and The Point Guard in the Rye – except that Foy doesn’t get to write this one.

Whoever The Sellout really is, I enjoyed his story-telling. My favorite scene is of the party on the public bus after Sellout (also affectionately called Bonbon by Marpessa) and Hominy add “for whites only” to the “priority for seniors and disabled” sign. The bus jumps with passengers dancing and drinking, celebrating the momentous and offensive turn of events. “What does it mean, I’m offended?” Bonbon asks, “It’s not even an emotion. What does being offended say about how you feel? No great theatre director ever said to an actor, ‘Okay, this scene calls for some real emotion, no go out there and give me lots of offendedness!’” Taken as it is, the rollicking tale of Bonbon and Hominy is as amusing as any Little Rascals episode, as woo-ing as one of his world famous satsuma oranges. Sometimes the story is laden down with innuendo and double entendre, but, it doesn’t purport to being just a story; it is a farcical mirror, too.

The Sellout is an original. The only thing it sells out to is the future, to absurdity – not futurism or absurdism or any other ideology. It sells out to what’s to come by dreaming, asking questions, never settling, never getting old. Kids play a significant role in this book. Sellout charms them by castrating a bull at Career Day. Their school excels as soon as a whites only school is advertised across the street. They point to the future and help him make his point. Sellout says, “that’s the problem with this generation; they don’t know their history.” He says “history is what stays with you.” And what stays with the characters in this book is the fight and passion that keeps them young. Hominy is one of the oldest characters, but remains young at heart by acting. He doesn’t become his discriminating roles; they’re becoming of him. “We didn’t call it blackface; we called it acting,” he says. Sellout’s dad tells him the two most important questions are, “Who am I? and How may I become myself?” Sellout answers throughout the book by generating more questions, by giving us every opportunity to question ourselves. We may be asked to leave the show because it’s segregated, but that’s the point: to laugh and learn.

Author: marilivtollefson

I teach and play violin when not reading and reviewing books. Thanks to indie authors for opening my world and sharing theirs! Find my reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, Kobo, Midwest Book Review and BookPage, among others.

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