Friday, April 15, 2016

The Sellout (by Paul Beatty)

The Sellout was the winner of this year's Tournament of Books! All the discussions of it throughout the tournament completely sold me on this novel, many times over, so of course I had to read it.

Broadly, it's a satirical novel about race relations in America. The main character, known only by his nickname of Bonbon, becomes an involuntary slaveowner and then reinstitutes segregation, which turns out to have a positive impact on the black community in his Los Angeles neighborhood. And I could quote it all day long.

“Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I'd have been better off. I wouldn't have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn't have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it. Plus, I'm left-handed.” 
“I'm so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren't there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That's why black literature sucks!” 

I'm a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists. We separate the wheat from the chaff. I'm not Rudolf Hess, P. W. Botha, Capitol Records, or present-day U.S. of A. Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold on to power. I'm a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.”

I actually have a hard time figuring out how to write about this. It feels very urgent and very current. It captures Los Angeles so incredibly well. It's funny but the kind of funny that makes your heart clench. And it's especially hard to write about it as a white person -- I feel like the two white people who go to the black comedy club towards the end of the novel, when the comedian yells at them:

“What the fuck are you interloping motherfuckers laughing at? . . . Do I look like I’m fucking joking with you? This shit ain’t for you. Understand? Now get the fuck out! This is our thing!”

Googling for that quote got me to this reviewer, who had the same experience and who actually articulates a lot of what I thought about this novel. So go there and read her very thoughtful analysis. And definitely read The Sellout.

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