Trish's Reviews > The Sellout

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
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bookshelves: fiction, funny, literature, parody, race, quirky, social-science

”…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?

Well, shortly after rapacious real estate developers convinced officials to remove signs demarking the township of Dickens, Me made and put up new signs and drew a white line around the streets and houses comprising Dickens and re-segregated: “No Whites Allowed.” One may be curious why he would do this, since the town was already black, but he felt he was saving something, making a point. They can’t just muscle in and erase a town…a culture…a people. That’s not fairness. People actually do care if you are white, brown, black or yellow. Sellout Bonbon had mused for some that if the black community in Dickens just took “their racial blinders off for one second, they’d realize [Dickens] was no longer black but predominantly Latino.” So he was just making Dickens “equal” by excluding whites. It’s not discrimination exactly. It’s equality.
”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.

In a reading Beatty gave at Politics & Prose, the Washington, D.C. bookstore, Beatty told the audience that he teaches a writing course at Columbia University and one of his students said to him, “I feel sorry for you guys” as though the race issue were finished, and is nothing now compared with yesterday. Beatty was shocked. It reminded me of young, upwardly mobile women saying they don’t experience sexism today.

Me, I incline towards Ta-Nehisi Coates’ June 2014 Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” Not that money will fix anything. It is the discussion about reparations that might fix something. Nigerian novelist Chris Abani, in a riveting conversation with American novelist Walter Mosley, says "America has had a unique relationship with blackness that, say, Europe really hasn’t had. As much as people like to pretend, slavery isn’t really over."
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Reading Progress

December 8, 2015 – Shelved
December 8, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
December 14, 2015 – Started Reading
December 14, 2015 –
25.0% "oh yeah. I tried this a couple of times & couldn't understand a word. NYT came out with it as the "best of 2015" and thought I'd try again. it was just the first couple pages of the prologue that threw me. Now I get it...and am on Chapter One."
December 14, 2015 –
50.0% "Beatty's got a lot going on here but it is a fast, wild ride."
December 16, 2015 – Shelved as: fiction
December 16, 2015 – Shelved as: funny
December 16, 2015 – Shelved as: literature
December 16, 2015 – Shelved as: parody
December 16, 2015 – Shelved as: race
December 16, 2015 – Shelved as: quirky
December 16, 2015 – Shelved as: social-science
December 16, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

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message 1: by Iris P (new) - added it

Iris P Trish, I've been wanting to read this since it was published and perhaps your review might finally convinced me to do that.

Fantastic summary, and thanks for all the complementary links and information.

On a side note I listened to that On Point interview you mentioned, as a matter of fact you can read a comment I posted at the time.
The interview was painful to listed to and the exchanges between Jane Clayson and Paul Beatty were awkward to say the least...


Trish Iris wrote: "On a side note I listened to that On Point interview you mentioned, as a matter of fact you can read a comment I posted at the time...."

Oh, do tell us what you said, Iris. It was excruciating to listen to them circling one another.

I hope you do get to this. How differently Beatty comes across in writing than in speech. I'm going to conclude that Beatty is one angry guy. Not that I blame him. But his relaxed persona and comic overlay might be his strategy for continuing to live..."sometimes it's the nihilism that makes life worth living."

On a side note, I loved what he says about blackness:
"For Hominy blackface isn't racism. It's just common sense. Black skin looks better. Looks healthier. Looks prettier. Looks powerful. It's why bodybuilders and international Latin dance contestants blacken themselves up. Why Berliners, New Yorkers, and businessmen, Nazis, cops, scuba divers, Panthers, bad guys, and Kabuki stage-hands wear black. Because if imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, then white minstrelsy is a compliment, it's a reluctant acknowledgement that unless you happen to really be black, being "black" is the closest a person can get to true freedom."
America has a strange relationship with race. We have a damnably far way to go to get everyone in on the conversation.


message 3: by Iris P (new) - added it

Iris P Trish wrote: "Iris wrote: "On a side note I listened to that On Point interview you mentioned, as a matter of fact you can read a comment I posted at the time...."

Oh, do tell us what you said, Iris. It was exc..."


Well, that's certainly an interesting perspective on blackness. As a black person myself I'd better don't comment :)

After recently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, I made a comment to a fellow GR reader that race only became such a difficult topic to talk about after I came to live in the US.

I agree that perhaps Beatty's use of humor and his almost nonchalant demeanor, might be a mechanism to maintain balance in his life.

So here's the comment I posted:

Iris's comments photo Iriss Comment_zpsqx5pjirs.jpg
This was also a good reminder that what we do and write on the web stays there forever!


Trish This was also a good reminder that what we do and write on the web stays there forever!

You're not kidding! When I looked on Google for this interview, your quote was part of the link..."wao was this a rough interview for Jane!" Ha. What a riot.


message 5: by Jim (new)

Jim Coughenour Excellent review, Trish. I especially appreciate the wider context, the interviews and the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Many Americans prefer to imagine that race is a resolved issue and that we're all living in the future, but the paradigm is shifting (it seems to me) and we're realizing that the conversation has just begun. I had no interest in this book until I read your review (doesn't mean I'll read it) – so a big thanks.


Trish Jim wrote: "the paradigm is shifting (it seems to me) and we're realizing that the conversation has just begun...."

Yes, I don't think the black people in America think we are living in a post-racial society. I realized sometime in the past several years that white folk have conveniently forgot what we did to the fabric of black society. It is hard to believe that it is not that long ago that blacks were enslaved or couldn't vote. The longer we all live, the closer the past seems.

The book has been lauded extensively. I realized as I struggled with the style that if I didn't really try to read it, I was missing a viewpoint that I need to inform my worldview. It is more than its jokes, and Beatty is more than his interviews.


Trish For everyone still following this thread, an absolutely terrific interview with Beatty, the first I have heard, has come to light. The link is here and gives us some idea of where he was coming from and what he wanted to point to in his award-winning novel.


message 8: by Jim (new)

Jim Coughenour Thanks Trish. I just ordered this book yesterday. Looking forward to reading it this weekend.


Trish Jim wrote: "Thanks Trish. I just ordered this book yesterday. Looking forward to reading it this weekend."

Good luck with that.


message 10: by [deleted user] (last edited Oct 27, 2016 04:42PM) (new)

Appreciate your ending this with reparations, and the observation I've heard several times how the US has a fundamentally different view of Blackness than does Europe due to slavery, and how that barbarism isn't quite over. Sounds like this deserved the Man Booker Award. Today's TLS had a beautiful picture of him and mentions the award with reviews of the last 10 years' worth of award winners - quite an interesting list especially seeing that last two were the only Blacks and both Black males in a row.


message 11: by Mir (last edited Oct 27, 2016 03:17PM) (new)

Mir 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!”

"Dickens" in those expressions refers to the Devil.
Eg, if you tell someone “Go to [the] Dickens!” is it means almost exactly what we mean by saying "go to Hell!"


Trish Miriam wrote: " if you tell someone “Go to [the] Dickens!” is it means almost exactly what we mean by saying "go to Hell!"

Thank you for that. It has never been completely clear to me. I heard it when I was young but these days people seem to call out their swear words with no filters.


message 13: by Mir (new)

Mir I kind of miss the more colorful euphemisms of yore.

Odd's Bodkins! Sacre bleu! Nitwit!


Trish Miriam wrote: "I kind of miss the more colorful euphemisms of yore.

Odd's Bodkins! Sacre bleu! Nitwit!"


Well, this book has plenty of those.


message 15: by Christy (new) - added it

Christy Appreciate your ending this with reparations, an ethical issue I've long considered. Many of us need a reviewer and observer of current political events like you, Trish, as it's correct the US has a fundamentally different view of Blackness than does Europe. This is due to slavery and emphasizing beliefs of "barbarism" anda less "developed", e.g., "human", civilization. I did love the beautiful TLS pic of this author. I found it interesting that in the last 10 years' worth of award winners, only the last two were the first Blacks, and both Black males in a row. (less)


Julie Great analysis on this novel, Trish, and I loved the ensuing thread. The novel is still ringing in my head, despite that it's been 2 months since I've read it. This one really did deserve its Booker win, unlike so many others in the past two decades, and I was thrilled that it did win, hoping it would be it on the radar of a lot more people who wouldn't read it otherwise.


Steve I would have bet good money that you'd do this one justice, Trish, and I would have won. Excellent points! You ask some great questions, as well. I'll be curious to check out those Beatty links you provided. Other interviews I've seen show him to be tight-lipped about the meaning of it all, too.


Trish Steve wrote: "I'll be curious to check out those Beatty links you provided...."

Yes, particularly this one, if you are short on time.


Steve Good one, Trish. Thanks! That sober-mindedness that Beatty talks about is counterbalanced well by the book.


message 20: by Valda (new) - added it

Valda Rubio Trish! Incredible book review. I'm about to read it.


Trish Valda wrote: "Trish! Incredible book review. I'm about to read it."

Good. Hope you enjoy it. I struggled at first but was glad I persevered.


Trudie I got so much from this review of yours and thanks for that interview link


Trish SThanks,Trudie. .. The book wasn’t an easy read.


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