Paul Beatty's The Sellout comes at a time in American history where discussions on racism, segregation, and racial violence are extremely prominent in our society. As recently as this month, another black man was killed by police. The protests in Charlotte, North Carolina have been publicized on national television, and the discourse on who is right and what really happened continues.
What does it mean to be black? Particularly in the United States. Beatty's book, at first glance, is extremely funny. The characters almost seem too exaggerated, and between the weed smoking and the ridiculous parties (like a birthday party in a bus full of Jack in the Box employees) you could easily write this off as a comedy as absurd as Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. But the truth of the novel is far grimmer than the relaxed personality of the narrator would lead you to believe. The narrator, known by his last name is Me (or by his girlfriend's nickname Bonbon), struggles with the reality that the town he has spent all of his life in, Dickens, is ruthlessly being taken out of the map - literally. There are no signs saying "Welcome to Dickens" or "You are now leaving Dickens, California". This is the truth many, if not all, marginalized and segregated neighborhoods throughout the United States have had to deal with. In an attempt to say "we are all equal" and "there is no longer any racism in America", we have swept under the carpet all of the communities that have been forgotten and left behind by the system. These, like Dickens, have been left with the poorest of infrastructures, and denied the benefits most white communities have been given.
Dickens is disappearing from the map. And in an attempt to bring his town back from obscurity and abandon, the narrator begins the project of segregating Dickens, and along the way is forced into being a slave owner by Hominy Jenkins, the last living Little Rascal. Hominy represents the age of "old-school" racism and segregation. Other characters join in the endeavor: Marpessa, the narrator's (married) girlfriend, Charisma, the middle school's principal, and other unlikely allies like a gangster Cruz. The craziness that ensues upon the nation's realization that "white people were being segregated from the middle school" and that a black man "owned" a slave (Hominy, by the way, could hardly be considered a slave in the context of the book, since he has actually forced the narrator to become his master).
A perfect example of the irony and realities that minorities have to deal with in America - which the book criticizes - is when the narrator, on trial for segregating Dickens and having a slave, says: "They never prosecuted a single South African for apartheid and they're going to arrest me? A harmless South Central African-American?" The irony is that everything the narrator had done had already been done to him, Dickens, and countless others in America.
The Sellout is not a lighthearted book. Don't let the jokes deceive you. The language, to some, may be too strong. Racial slurs are used in essentially every page. But your discomfort to the language will say more about you than of the book itself. If a conservative individual had to rate the book, they'd probably give it R-rated or even MA. I would say it's PG-13. The language is certainly the first thing you need to get used to. But eventually those slurs slip away and all you are left with is the reality of the narrative of this book: racism, segregation, discrimination, stereotyping, and shame. Don't be deterred by the language, nor the cultural references you may not always understand (depending on when you were born or if you're not from the US). Pick up The Sellout and gain a better understanding of what it means to be black in America. However, don't expect to learn much about what it means to be Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, African, Puerto Rican and any other minority in the USA. The Sellout's narrative is largely shown through the eyes of a black man. One could even say that a lot is still left to be said about the life of a black woman, but Marpessa did provide a glimpse into that world. Nevertheless, this is a book that will reveal to you truths about even yourself: your own ignorance, prejudice, and fears. And then hopefully make you alter your perception of what it means to be black in America.
Overrall Rating: 4.5 / 5