Tag Archives: black American writer

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

17 Mar

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

I didn’t know who Paul Beatty was a few weeks ago, when I suddenly became aware that he’s been canonized as our funniest, most relevant literary writer on the black American experience. Amazon has been bannering the websites I go to with advertisements for his book; his blurb-writers include Ben Marcus and Sam Lipstyle; Lorin Stein of The Paris Review is having a conversation with him at McNally Jackson as I type; and a link to a glowing Guardian review of the book is on the top of the blogstream at Volume One Brooklyn, also as I type.

The quote that’s going around, written by fellow black American writer Kiese Laymon for the Los Angeles Times  says “it’s fairly obvious that the United States is a Kara Walker exhibit and a Paul Beatty novel unknowingly masquerading as a crinkled Gettsyburg Address.” This is a great comparison, because like fine artist Kara Walker, Beatty takes classic racist themes and morphs them into something violent, horrible and new as a form of resistance.

From its opening passage, The Sellout takes stereotypes-head-on:

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.”

This powerful, sad, funny, obnoxious, ranting, exhaustive voice belongs to a black man variously called Bonbon or Sellout, who embarks on a quest to re-segregate a school in his suburb and to re-establish slavery there. I am supposing he does this because there is freedom in overturning convention when we discuss black history, and only by killing the sacred cows can Beatty get at something that resembles truth about what it’s like to be black in America.

Here’s how he takes down the Civil Rights Movement:

“the marchers on Washington become civil rights zombies…. The head zombie looks exhausted from being raised from the dead every time someone wants to make a point about what black people should and shouldn’t do, can and cannot have…. Under his breath he confesses that if he’d only tasted that unsweetened swill that passed for iced tea at the segregated lunch counters in the South he would’ve called the whole thing off…. He places a can of diet soda on the podium. ‘Things go better with Coke,’ he says. ‘It’s the real thing!'”

But the book isn’t really interested in segregation, slavery, or civil rights. Its true intention seems to be to recreate the cacophony of pressure and expectation placed on black Americans, which could simply be called ‘racism’ but here seems more complex, and then to resist it with Sellout’s freewheeling diatribe. Sellout is angry, making jokes and taking no prisoners about topics as varied as pressure from the black community to be the right kind of black person, pressure from yourself to be that person, pressure from a culture that imitates and fetishizes you (the name ‘Bonbon’), the sense of being under surveillance, the knowledge that if you do anything even slightly wrong you will be punished, and the expectation of hyper-sexuality, among many other things.

He says in various places, “I couldn’t care less about being black” and “Fuck being black.” But of course there’s no escape, as established by some gruesome early scenes where his behavioral scientist father tortures him while trying to condition him with appropriate black-pride racial responses. His blackness is painfully hard-wired.

Under these conditions, Beatty’s establishment of absolute freedom for his narrator to say and do whatever he wants makes sense. And it also creates a book that’s a masterpiece of gleeful line-by-line mayhem. Like, the passage where Sellout helps a gang of schoolchildren castrate a calf.  “‘Don’t they got cow rubbers?'” someone asks. Sellout replies:

“That’s not a bad idea but cows don’t have hands and, like the Republican Party, any regard for a female’s reproductive rights, so this is a way to control the population. It also makes them more docile. Anyone know what ‘docile’ means?’ … A skinny chalk-colored girl raised a hand so disgustingly ashy, so white and dry-skinned, that it could only be black. ‘It means bitchlike,’ she said, volunteering to assist me by stepping to the calf and flicking his downy ears with her fingers.”

This is difficult material that will not be for everyone. It wasn’t for me, to be honest. In addition to taking my schoolgirls and “sacred cows” (see, hilarious!?) too seriously, I found the prose funny but overly long and rambling.

I also found that the satirical plot and the humorous elements added a layer of unreality that made the potentially powerful parts less powerful. Are we supposed to feel sad about this poor little schoolgirl in the hands of a man named Bonbon who is criticizing her skin and then lets her castrate a bull? Or is it supposed to be funny? Are we supposed to feel like it even happened? I don’t know, so I don’t feel much at all.

As a statement on race, it’s incredible. As a novel, I didn’t finish it.