The Sellout by Paul Beatty – Book Review

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The Sellout is a deftly woven tale of one man who tries to put his hometown, Dickens (a little-known region of Los Angeles) back on the map after it is removed in a wanton act of gentrification.

I’m not sure I’m qualified to write a review of The Sellout. It’s a book that made my head spin; full of eloquently written insanity, contradictions and tangents that lead you through a meandering, gently paced, but ever-surprising plot. The writing is (perhaps intentionally) as though reading the thoughts of someone under the influence of drugs. While beautifully deep and expressive, it sometimes follows a thread so loosely that you lose sight of what you were reading about.

The real joy in The Sellout: the writing.

The Sellout is written in the first person, with the protagonist and narrator known only by his surname, ‘Me’, as in, Me vs The United States of America, and his nickname, ‘Bonbon’. His father, F.K. Me (yes, the humour is sometimes a little underwhelming), is a psychologist of some repute who brings up his son through a series of psychological experiments. His methods are tantamount to torture, including public beatings and electric shocks, and help to explain some of the Bonbon’s deficiencies later on.

The story presents Bonbon as a lonely character who feels conflicting emotions about his hometown, upbringing and particularly his tumultuous relationship with his (now late) father. He’s a walking contradiction. He’s an erudite, well-read farmer who spends his time toiling to prepare a combination of highly sought after fruit (mainly watermelon) and even more highly sought after marijuana. He’s a modern-day slave master. A black surfer. He rides on horseback to the ‘Dum dum donuts intellectual society’, a weekly meeting of black thinkers in the area. He displays a carefree attitude to the past hurts of the African American people. He’s irreverent, sticking the middle finger up to practically everyone.

In short, he’s an incredible character. Serving as both a perfect scapegoat and a witty genius, the author utilises Bonbon’s lack of sensibility regarding his own race to present, to quote the author, ‘many of the arguments that black Americans make for themselves’. Bonbon’s depth of character makes this book a page-turner, even where the plot does not. He’s a well rounded, flawed character that feels three dimensional. He’s complex – I found myself both rooting for him and disliking him.

Beatty uses ingenious methods to draw the reader’s attention. The story is both edifying on a macro level (drawing our attention to the severity and in places hilarity of the current system), and unedifying on the micro level, full to the brim of irreverence, swearwords, the N-word. The prose is both poetic and harsh, keeping the reader on their toes. It asks many poignant questions – making lots of cases but not generally trying to push anyone truth, instead inviting the reader to consider viewpoints beyond their usual point of reference.

Are you sitting comfortably? You shouldn’t be.

I believe The Sellout should make the reader feel uncomfortable. It is funny, but not nearly as funny as the reviews suggest, with comments on the cover such as; 

‘One of the few books of recent years that has made me choke with laughter’.

In fact, I felt vindicated in my appraisal as the author himself has stated that he believes that critics tend to focus on the humour because it saves them from having to engage with the more serious overarching themes of the story. To be honest, I feel their pain. I’m just glad I’m not being paid to write this review, that would be stressful.

I’ll finish by quoting Amanda Foreman, who was chair of the judges the year that Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize for The Sellout. She manages to write a much more concise review than I ever could:

”The Sellout is one of those very rare books that is able to take satire, which is in itself a very difficult subject and not always done well, and it plunges into the heart of contemporary American society and, with absolutely savage wit, of the kind I haven’t seen since Swift or Twain, both manages to eviscerate every social taboo and politically correct, nuanced, every sacred cow, and while both making us laugh, making us wince. It is both funny and painful at the same time, and it is really a novel of our times.” 

Conclusion

I’d highly recommend The Sellout, though definitely not for those of a sensitive disposition. You have to see past the vulgarity and potentially offensive nature of much of the storyline to really appreciate its poetic beauty, and the essential but challenging message that it conveys. It’s a book that will leave you thinking. Possibly thinking, ‘I’ll read something more straightforward next time’.

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