I began writing this post back when I first read The Sellout the first week of August, and somehow never finished it? So it may seem like I’m a little late to the party, but… here it is.
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout starts with a bang, and rarely lets up.
That autonomic eager-to-please response that’s triggered anytime you’re approached in a store and asked, “Do you work here?” The face worn every moment you’re on the job and not in the bathroom stall, the face flashed to the white person who saunters by and patronizingly pats you on the shoulder and says, “You’re doing a find job. Keep up the good work.” The face that feigns acknowledgement that the better man got the promotion, even though deep down you and they both know that you really are the better man and the best man is the woman on the second floor.”
It’s difficult to describe the plot of this book, but it focuses on a man who wants to put his city of Dickens back on the map after it has been subsumed by surrounding areas, its existence and residents forgotten, erased in the most literal sense of the word.
From the “Wiki” page for the city:
Dickens is in an unincorporated city in southwest Los Angeles County. Used to be all black, now there’s hella Mexicans. Once known as the murder capital of the world, shit ain’t as bad as it used to be, but don’t trip.
Some ridiculous things happen in this book and the narrator ends up (unwillingly) with a slave and promoting segregation, for which the narrator winds up in court. That isn’t really the focus of the book, however; it’s more about the social tension. In fact, the plot sometimes goes weird places and almost disappears entirely (a couple months after reading it and I couldn’t tell you how the court case turns out – it wasn’t the point).
This book was provocative and hilarious, but it’s more the laugh you give when you feel like you’re in collusion with the writer, you see the intelligence at work and despite your best efforts, have to recognize and laugh at the ridiculousness of these situations that aren’t so far from the truth. I’m sure there was a lot more going on in this book than I understood.
I was rooting for either it or Do Not Say We Have Nothing to win the Man Booker Prize, so I was pleased. I had a feeling this one would win out because of the timeliness, though it was also one of the smartest of all the books on the longlist (of which I read 10). I’d be interested to read whatever else Beatty writes in the future.
Character development: 4.5/5
Overall rating: 8/10