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289 pages, Hardcover
First published March 3, 2015
”…when I did what I did, I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it.”My copy of this novel is spiked with tabs marking something deeply insightful, stabbingly funny, or needing revisiting. There is simply too much to point to: Beatty must have been saving up observations about race relations in America to get so much into this relatively short novel. He never tells us why his fictional California town is named Dickens—it can’t be about the author—but I think it has to do with a classic American imprecation “Go to [the] Dickens!” though I am certainly willing to be challenged on this supposition. Dickens is also used as an exclamatory “What the dickens!” standing in for “What the F@*k!” in marginally polite white dialogue, and perhaps even in the L’il Rascals film archives, though I am going to have to check on that.
”They won’t admit it, but every black person thinks they’re better than every other black person.”Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me, is the sellout. He just doesn’t seem to get the “black” thing. He identifies as human first, black second. Beatty doesn’t target black folk alone. Everyone is skewered in this wild ride through a Los Angeles southwest suburb that still has farm zoning, allowing families to live among livestock, chickens, cotton, watermelon, and weed. A proud descendant of the Kentucky family called Mee and one whose forefather subsequently dropped the extraneous “e,” our narrator Bonbon Me has a case before the Supreme Court, a “screw-faced” black Justice, about his ownership of a slave in the present day. That alleged slave, Hominy Jenkins, literally declaimed his status one day to our narrator as a result of Me still having agricultural interests and therefore probably needing a slave. Hominy moved in. What could Me do?
”The Supreme Court is where the country takes out its dick and tits and decides who’s going to get fucked and who’s getting a taste of mother’s milk. It’s constitutional pornography in there…and what…about obscenity? I know it when I see it…Me vs. the United States of America demands a more fundamental examination of what we mean by ‘separate,’ by ‘equal,’ by ‘black.’"Beatty demurs when critics point out his work as a satire. It isn’t, he says. It’s reportage. The material in this book is, in fact, observable in everyday America.
”Black people don’t even talk about race. Nothing’s attributable to color anymore. It’s all ‘mitigating circumstances.’ The only people discussing ‘race’ with any insight and courage are loud middle-aged white men…well-read open-minded white kids…a few freelance journalists in Detroit…”Author interviews with Beatty are some of the most uncomfortable I have ever heard or read. Beatty stutters and avoids, sometimes flat out refuses to entertain a question. (Examples: Boston NPR Onpoint, and Ebony.) He clearly doesn’t like talking about “what his book means.” He wants his book to start the conversation. We’re supposed to be telling him what it means…to us…as individuals rather than as a class. He says often in interviews, “I am uncomfortable talking about this.” He does not appear to be uncomfortable writing about what he sees and what he thinks about what he sees, so folks interested in making him a spokesperson for black people will have to turn to his writing. But there aren’t answers there, either, really. It is just raw material for the discussion we are all meant to have.