Book review: The Sellout | Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty’s satirical treatise on ‘post-racial’ America is epic.

The novel begins with a black man, known only by his surname, Me, arriving at the Supreme Court for the case of: Me vs the United States of America. Me lights up a marijuana pipe, eyeballs the Rolex-wearing black judge, and lazes back in his chair, which “like this country, is not as comfortable as it seems.”

Nor is this book. Me, who is a watermelon and weed farmer (you read that right), is facing charges for reinstating racial segregation in his small town of Dickens and for keeping a slave (you read that right as well).

Me was raised by his single father, an ethically-questionable psychologist whose life and work were suffocated by the squeezing clutches of racism. Through a series of tortuous experiments, his father attempted to condition his son to outwit and outlast the many social systems that were destined to make him fail. But, years later, can Me—who kept bombing his dad’s tests—really be the cure-all for black Americans, just as his father had hoped?

The writing is so generously witty it almost feels sunny in parts. But as Me walks through Obama’s America on his way to the Supreme Court, and whenever he is interacting with Hominy, his willing black slave, there is horror behind every word, and post-racial America appears nothing but a farce.

This is the kind of book to read when you have time and space. The journey is reflective and slow, with dense descriptive prose. And there is much back-story and side-story, but you soon learn these are the story. None of that diminishes the clarity and cleverness of the book. Many sentences, especially in the punchy first third, need to be absorbed—and then remembered for the rest of your life.

Beatty—already an established novelist and poet—was the first U.S. writer to win the Man Booker prize for this book. When asked what inspired him to write the novel, he replied, possibly with a shrug, “I was broke.”

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