My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve been trying to figure out how to review “The Sellout.” I wanted more and I don’t think the book gave it to me. But is that the book? Or me?
There’s no doubt Paul Beatty is a brilliant writer: nimble, knowledgeable, quick-witted. I read the first dozen pages and was overwhelmed, almost gleeful. Could he keep up such an amazing burst of imagination for an entire novel?
Well, yes. And no.
Because satire – and “The Sellout” is, if nothing else, a satire – is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can mercilessly (and often angrily) mock conventional wisdom and powerful, if wrongheaded, ideas. Beatty does this often and well. Everything in his path gets skewered: Los Angeles and its many neighborhoods and suburbs (this book may have the best feel for L.A. as a full, unkempt city of any book I’ve ever read) “Little Rascals” shorts (and, by extension, the movies, their stereotypes and their portrayals of children); gangstas; black neighborhood gathering places; well-meaning liberals; black intellectuals; sister cities; and pretty much the whole idea of a post-racial America.
The upshot is that race – and all that comes with it – is always present in these fractured United States, no matter how much we all try to ignore it (or, well, not).
But I found myself getting fatigued by Beatty’s jokes, which often come as punch lines to series, absurd metaphors or long-winded descriptions: “Later that day, like any good social pyromaniac worth their accelerant …” “As opposed to Hermosa, Redondo and Newport, which were much closer to Dickens, but the breaks were dominated by straight-edge Jesus freaks who kissed their crucifixes before every set and listened to conservative talk radio after the sessions.” The man can write rings around the English language, that’s for sure. But to what end?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. The narrator, whose name is Me (it’s short for something, but I can’t find the page), is raised in Dickens, an agrarian black L.A. community, by a social scientist single father who often brutally home-schools his son in the ways of the world. (One of the best set pieces is a trip across country to the Deep South, where the narrator’s father commands him to wolf-whistle at a white woman. It doesn’t unfold as you expect.) After the father is shot by the LAPD, the narrator gets a $2 million settlement and determines to put Dickens back on the map, from which it has been literally erased.
He does this by re-establishing segregation, either in spirit or letter. He posts signs on buses favoring “seniors, disabled, and whites”; he puts up a large coming-soon construction poster for a private school across the street from the ramshackle minority public school. He even becomes the slave owner of Hominy Jenkins, one of the Our Gang actors, though he can’t bear to whip him even when Hominy demands it. (He hires S&M folks for that.)
Eventually, the narrator is arrested for his “crimes,” though what those crimes are leaves the legal system at a loss. A black man promoting whiteness? Testing the idea of separate but equal that was found wanting by civil rights cases? As a Vietnamese-American judge observes in a very diverse courtroom, they’re trying to figure out the “parameters for what is essentially a judicial argument about the applicability, the efficacy, and the very existence of white supremacy as expressed through our system of law.”
So much to think about. And so much to bitterly laugh about, too.
But I found myself wishing that Beatty had made his characters something more than two-dimensional counter-stereotypes (the well-read bus driver, the bisexual good ol’ boy). He gets his point across, but I’m not sure I was emotionally moved. The glibness gets in the way.
(Side note: Did Beatty have a copyeditor? There are typos and misspellings here and there: “Spicolli” instead of “Spicoli,” “Blackula” instead of “Blacula.” C’mon, publishers!)
But do I have to be moved? Does satire lead to catharsis? I’ve been trying to think of other true novel-length satires. It’s a hard trick to pull off something so angry at length and still get the reader to emotionally invest in your characters; it’s easier with essays or comedy sketches (or movies), which by their nature get in and get out and only want laughter or gasps. Richard Russo’s “Straight Man” is a comic novel with satiric elements. “Catch-22” may be closer. Parts of Vonnegut. Maybe Evelyn Waugh is the best literary example, and Waugh is also very brittle.
So “The Sellout” is one of those books I admire, but it left me a bit chilled. Still, perhaps that’s another of Beatty’s points. After all, when you look at the history and challenges of race relations in America, you may wish for hope and warmth, but there’s no avoiding some cold, cold facts.