Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Surprisingly, I haven’t read a lot of American fiction. I am not sure why reading in India is not as exposed to American writing, given how much everything else is. Our TV Series, ‘English’ movies are thoroughly American, but our books are very European.

In 2016, when the Booker Prize opened to beyond Commonwealth countries, thankfully for me, widely contested otherwise, Paul Beatty became the first American to receive this award. This book became essential reading for me, for just this reason to start with.

Follow that up with the fact that I could not put the book down when I read it’s premise — a story about reinstatement of racial segregation (deliberate) and slavery (not so much) — the book appealed to me from the back-jacket first and from the first page after. It’s probably the most humorous book that I have read of late, which is how it manages to stay for its entire length, even while dealing with a serious topic.

For me, Hominy (a minor actor from Little Rascals brilliantly allowing juxtaposition of fact and fiction) was the most interesting character followed, closely, by Foy Cheshire. The reason why the book appeals to a non-American audience is largely because of its wit, sarcasm and the constant caustic assault on stereotypes which is refreshing in how unconformable it can sometimes be. The character of Foy Cheshire offers a counter ebb to ‘Bonbon’ Me and Hominy’s attempt of making people and places important through ‘recognizing’ their difference and individuality rather than feigning ignorance through a forced broad-stroke homogeneity — just because race as a subject makes us uncomfortable. While Hominy, an aging, underutilized actor, wants to go back to history and be important again by being a slave — the only societal construct he knows he could be meaningful in, Foy is fastidiously trying to rewrite history by writing African-American versions of famous books (like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn).

At one point, my favorite in the book, Foy pours white paint down his right side in a moment of temporary insanity — which could be a metaphor for his view of ‘whitening’ of African Americans while African-Americanizing ‘white’ literature. Or it could be to illustrate his opinion of how ‘insane’ the idea of segregation is — which he embodied in that moment of insanity. Maybe it was both, maybe even more.

There’s much else to like (and write about) — the thesis like stand-up comedy routine, the Dum Dum Intellectuals, the bus-driving love interest, the gangsters in the hood, the ideas of a black Chinese restaurant, the crazy experiments of an ‘academic’ father who is homeschooling his son, the idea (and non-sense) of closure — which even the readers are denied in the end.

The book is thought provoking and layered, just as I like my fiction!

I have to admit that there are a ton of references in the book that I did not get. It’s a novel that deserves a dedicated course on it — there’s a lot to be ‘googled’ on every page. I started doing that but it got very tiring after a point. I will, however, revisit this book again when I can read it at a more leisure pace. This, to me, is the only drawback of the novel — it felt like it wasn’t written for me — which is nothing to take away from its brilliance, but makes me feel ‘segregated’ in its reading.