Book Review: The Sellout

Freewheeling and fun prose coupled with acidic commentary makes The Sellout an important, timely book.

There are those who stand there on the cantilevered bungee ramp, arms akimbo and eyes spread in wide ellipses, lips nervously wetted, looking at fellas for reassurances and thumbs-ups, gazing at the clouds for His blessings…

And then there are those who flash like Wile E. Coyote across the ramp and wohoo! down below, limbs flapped together in crazy elation and goofy abandon.

Doesn’t matter what the preparatory rituals (or the lack of) are, once you take the plunge and are into the upper-spheres you’re in for one helluva, inexplicable ride — guaranteed.

The Sellout is the literary equivalent of bungee jumping, attached to a 286-page-long unbreakable elastic cord.

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The prologue in The Sellout, the one Paul Beatty uses plunger-like to suck us in, is one of the most hilarious beginnings of a novel in recent times. This joyous, tongue-in-cheek rant serves to instantly blend a matey camaraderie with Beatty. But, more importantly, it gives a panoramic view of his brilliant work we’re to enter, teeming with caustic critiques, wacky characters, aisle-rolling profanity, crackling interludes and snobbish jokes. And, in executing this all, an awe-inspiring mastery over form and structure.

We open to our protagonist seated in a chair — which “very much like this country, was not as comfortable as it looks” — and smoking a joint in the Supreme Court of the United States, as the jury arrives for the hearing. Our unnamed friend — surnamed Me — is convicted for his crime of reinstating segregation in his ghetto community of Dickens, and employing a slave in his services.

What ensues thereon is not a court procedure as we’re wont to expect, but instead an autobiographical retelling of the protagonist’s life in the agricultural town of Dickens, situated, we’re told, in the south-west of L.A. county. His mother’s whereabouts he’s unaware of; his father, an idiosyncratic social scientist, whups him into homeschooling; he grows up to farming in the estate inherited after his father’s death; his boyhood love, now married, he still chases after; the slave in his employment is a former actor who blatantly worships slavery and whites alike; the social club — Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals — he attends without much interest is an ensemble of locals, led by the didactic Mr. Foy.

All that’s writ above is but reading the cover of this deeply contemporary work.

To group this satire in a daring nutshell, suffice it to say that it’s a scathing commentary on the so called post-racial America. One that may have elected a black President, sure, but still balks not from hurling the ‘n-word’. A country now with an influx of Mexicans into its life and psyche. A place that, for all its face of accommodation, is appalled by homosexuals, Jews and Blacks. It’s also a rueful reflection on the black mindsets: “That automatic eager-to-please response that’s triggered every time a white man passes by.” A go at the films, even: “ The formulaic repetitiveness of filing and stuffing envelopes appeals to me… I would’ve made a good factory worker…, or Hollywood scriptwriter.” Mr. Me scoots around his small world in a dreamy telltale of the daily racial atrocities of life in America. It cringes at subservient black stand-up comedy, the academic system, politics, and many things I’m missing out here… Seek out yourself.

I’d be self-indulgent and paste all the great lines here, but that’d be the very opposite of my purpose in writing this piece. Read the book. Anyway.

The Sellout spreads out and yet probes deep. There is snark, anger, wit, snobbery, sensitivity and undeniable flair in Beatty’s writing, but after reading it twice over the past week, I realise there is also an honest sense of responsibility. Something that has aided him in expounding on the darker issues gnawing the bones of this superpower. Without being nitpicky or a bantering droll.

For all its freewheeling style, it’s decidedly not a breezy read; the puns and cross-references set me googling, to get a clearer meaning. And, more glaringly, Beatty cuts in often with subversive anecdotes that do not necessarily corroborate the running plotline. These might have made for a haphazard narrative but for Beatty’s turn of phrases in cracking a smart quip, a scathing inference or plain loathe hauling the book (and its reader) back on track. Not always. These diversions, at times, lead to a fair bit of circuitous, and hence cursory, reading. Because of a not-so-strong plot to power it through, and knowing this well, Beatty employs the said narratives to keep the pungent commentary aflame, and therein lies the crux of The Sellout.

The final judgement we’re led toward by the major part of the book is undramatic and plain, as against the rhetorical courtroom climaxes we’ve come to expect from films; though by never betraying a hint of slack in its vein of caustic dialogue this blip is easily overcome. In the end it does incredibly well to hold firm as a viscous, no-holds-barred critique of the times we live in, instead of succumbing as a ranty joke book.

The Sellout is an important, timely book. Its satire fleshes out the societal maladies with cutting, nuanced flair. But a satire, shredded of its symptoms in the distant future, needs to hold good as a story on its own for it to be timeless, and here this Paul Beatty novel comes up short.

As far as Booker predictions go, I say, Paul Beatty will have to wait.

Please hit the heart below to recommend.