Review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty (USA: Picador, 2016)
by Angus Whitehead
I was initially cynical of the deluge of praise for Paul Beatty’s Booker Prize-winning novel. NPR.org, for instance, described The Sellout as possibly “the first truly great satirical novel of the century”; Simon Schama thinks it “[o]utrageous, hilarious and profound.” While less high-profile readers have expressed reservations on-line concerning the novel’s supposed lack of plot, depth of characterization or variety of tone, I was rapidly won over by its wit and experimental form as well as its audacious premise and content, a combination which satisfied this reader in ways reminiscent of earlier Booker contenders Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late. On compulsive-immediate second read I found myself laughing out loud over passages I’d not cottoned on to the first time round. This deceptively simple story, if slightly unhinged oral narrative, seems ever more layered the more you explore it.
Beatty’s novel (if it is a novel: Beatty himself seems unsure) starts with a ‘Prologue’, containing the prelude to the novel’s ultimately inconclusive conclusion, beginning,
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to, as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.
The narrator and protagonist, ‘Bon Bon’ (as the girlfriend he won’t let go, despite her marriage and kids, calls him) Me, has grown up aggressively and experimentally homeschooled by his farming, Jungian psychologist, ‘nigger whisperer’ suicide-counselling father. Professor Me, rather like Rodney King, remains a very real presence in the novel, long after being unlawfully shot dead by LA police. It is Bon Bon’s mother who remains atypically absent from Bon Bon’s life in this almost-by-the-way feminist-humanist novel. Little wonder then the narrator’s worldview develops in an arresting and ultimately illuminating divergence from the official script of modern black-and-white America. Bon Bon is the ‘sellout’ of the title, a sellout to white America, betraying his late father’s black-affirming work and beliefs, if the plagiarizing opportunist and local black-media celebrity Foy Cheshire is to be believed.
Young Bon Bon seems initially caught in black poverty, the family home in the ‘hood of Dickens mortally mortgaged. All suddenly changes after Bon Bon’s father’s shooting. The agricultural hamlet of Dickens is swallowed up in Los Angeles development and gentrification. With the two-million-dollar out-of-court police settlement on his father’s death, Bon Bon can buy both land and house (economics and class compete with race and gender as satirical targets); he is unexpectedly free but, bereft of father and locale, without identity. While Bon Bon maintains the family farm in the LA projects, growing delicious melons and weed, he suddenly finds himself obliged to reintroduce both segregation (“elderly, disabled and whites only”) and slavery. His slave, Hominy, is the ancient black child understudy of the racist (or should that be groundbreaking?) TV series “Little Rascals.” The perpetually horny octogenarian Hominy works only fifteen minutes a day, does what he likes, and requires regular beatings administered by a pricey Union-cap-wearing dominatrix. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that in a sense Hominy is Bon Bon’s substitute father, even before Bon Bon’s father’s shooting. As a consequence of development, the resurgent, remapped Dickens becomes surprisingly, unsettlingly, a community that functions effectively, politely, at least on its buses and in its schools (black Chaff High just across the street from the promised white Wheaton Academy). The only trouble is once-black Dickens now has too many Mexicans. Even the US Mexicans, whether they are considered, or consider themselves black or white, think so. The novel ends with the narrator being tried in the highest US court, but for what exactly? Segregation? Slavery? Apartheid? Who has ever been convicted for apartheid?
Through this hood-pastoral fantasy cum reportage narrative, Beatty teases out and calls out uncomfortable continuities between 1860s and 2010s America, revealing just how willfully ignored those continuities have been this century and a half. As Hominy, jet black superannuated quintessence of ‘coon’ and cultural-national embarrassment that refuses to shut up and die, says when he first wills himself Bon Bon’s slave, “Been this way ever since we first set foot in this country. Someone’s getting whipped or stopped or frisked, whether or not anyone done anything wrong.” The Sellout uses rich not-so-gentle satire to embolden readers regardless of their own race, gender or sexual persuasion to perceive the unseen and the unacknowledged in modern America, not only racism in the deep south but also black political correctness that divides California’s ‘Mexicans’, blacks and whites. In its critique of the minority as well as the majority, in the hope of generating a Blakean expansion of consciousness and vision, the closest parallel I can come up with in Singapore literature would have to be Singapore’s own Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches. In his series of flash fiction, Alfian also reveals how the local minority can be their own worst enemy, even when marginalized by the exogamous hegemony.
Beatty’s book is so well-written, even a page chosen at random holds its own in a way few other recent novels I have encountered do. The novel is outrageous, provocative, liberating as it freely engages with difficult, ‘unspeakable’ issues. I wonder how many times the word ‘nigger’ is used in this book, perhaps as many times as Mark Twain used it in Tom Sawyer before Cheshire bowdlerises the novel for use in black schools, re-titling it The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit. Some of that usage also occurs when one of Me senior’s whisperees, stoned and armed, takes on the cops as he raps his own inspired and ambivalent take on Tennyson’s poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Theirs not to reason what the fuck,
Theirs but to shoot and duck:
Niggers to the right of them
Niggers to the left of them,
Niggers is front of them
Partied and blundered…
Beatty dares to explicitly question and irreverently puncture many a pious black as well as white myth in institutionally glossed marginalization in America. The return of slavery and segregation—the off-kilter scenario related in a deadpan believable way—seems to reveal America’s warts and all by a raking light. Honest Abe Lincoln comes back to life, lanky as Obama, with the build of a basketball player (perhaps all he would be good for in 2017 America?) , and discovers “that the Union he saved was now a dysfunctional plutocracy, that the people he freed were now slaves to rhythm, rap and predatory lending.” But Beatty is not limited to exploring just the injustices experienced by African Americans, but a wide range of marginalized and disenfranchised groups in America, whether animal, mineral or vegetable. In a seemingly offhand remark, even that most modern and enlightened of programs, the internship, is revealed as really nothing more than a form of indentured slavery. Beatty’s eclecticism in causes is also mirrored in his pot shots at Toni Morison, Banksy, Dave Eggers, ESPN, Brett Easton Ellis, BP, Reno, and Cirque du Soleil.
Although The Sellout engages with an America where, in Dylan’s words, “it’s easy to see not too much is really sacred,” Dickens’ donut shop, a white-owned business, is represented by the novel as the sole oasis of genuine community, and old fashioned decency. The shop was the only place to escape violence during the Rodney King riots, and it is the only place free of graffiti and urine since. Thus it is chosen as the meeting place of the Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals begun by Professor Me, continued by Foy Cheshire. The DDDI, which Bon Bon attends quietly, is really all talk, no trousers. But the old-time values and qualities of the donut shop seem to come alive and spread as Dickens is reclaimed and as segregation takes off—welcomed for a sense of common order and direction, if complicated by the fact that there aren’t any whites, fewer and fewer blacks and more Mexicans in twenty-first century Dickens anyway. (It is Hominy the persistent slave who sows the seeds for the reintroduction as he helps sort out a traffic jam after a car crash: “yellow, follow the whites and let it mellow.”)
Beatty’s book is not ‘politically correct’, but neither was Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, Ulysses in 1922. Could an experimental vocal mischievous novel about race ever be that? As with Swift’s book, there’s a sense of social justice, a proactive intention to try to get people to give a shit. Beatty’s strategy of satire is through the quotidian absurdity, getting people to notice what’s unnoticed, beyond correctness and gloss, and pointing constructively to what still needs to be done. It roused me to examine many easily accepted platitudes, wondering if they truly speak truth to power or ultimately ossify, even retard, progress. This very American text is not without relevance to another country like Singapore where we are told racial harmony thrives, when race as an issue suspiciously resembles a frozen question put on hold by an elite in the interests of the majority and not genuinely discussed since the last major racial riots in 1969. At the end of The Sellout, in a short section ironically entitled “Closure,” the narrator, still husking corn, challenges Foy Cheshire who is celebrating the inauguration of “that black dude” as if all was now unequivocally hunky dory,
Why are you waving the flag? […] Why now? I’ve never seen you wave it before […] And what about the Native Americans? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking California condor? When do they collect?
It seems telling that Beatty began as a slam performance poet, and later edited an anthology of black American humour. The novel at moments comes off as a stand-up’s routine, heightened and deepened by Beatty’s great skills as wordsmith and storyteller. The more one reads the more one understands why it took Beatty years to write: it must have been the meticulous reworking and polishing that makes The Sellout so slick, tight, smooth. At one point an uncharacteristically (Bon Bon suggests) funny black comedian rips into a white couple for laughing too loudly at his jokes, ultimately driving them out of the venue. “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!” Bon Bon who does not condemn the bullying tirade (the couple could have surely defended themselves) responds internally, “but I wish I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: “So what exactly is our thing?”” Bon Bon, the black surfer of segregated beaches, seems doggedly admiring of aspects of white culture, reminding us that Joni Mitchell and her ilk were singing paeans to California long before the gangsta rappers. I’m particularly intrigued by Bon Bon’s repeated championing of talented and hitherto somewhat neglected early nineties white rap duo Third Base who notoriously gave MC Hammer the ‘gas face’, supported Public Enemy on tour, and vocally defended their fellow rappers against accusations of anti-white and anti-Jewish rhetoric. No race is seriously stereotyped: rap history might have been very different but for Rick Rubin. Indeed, to be black seems a nebulous contested thing. Was Marilyn Monroe, say, or James Dean in a curious, or perhaps very real sense more willfully ‘black’ than, say, Obama, Beyonce or Will Smith? Perhaps this was the point made on the original cover of Calvin C. Hernton’s Sex and Racism in America?
There is a telling reference in Beatty’s concluding acknowledgements, which don’t seem to be tongue-in-cheek, to the work of black sociologist-psychologist William E. Cross, which Beatty read as a student. Cross’s research from the 1960s to the 1990s seems to provide some context to Bon Bon and his tale. Cross’s stage-by-stage model for the empowering development of black identity had initially appeared in Black World, a journal which was obliged to cease publication in the early seventies due to widespread resistance to ideas of black power and development. Cross’s work, in increasingly more nuanced and fluid terms, affirmed the positivity and variability of people of colour—even in a nation shaped by white privilege, and mass incarceration of African Americans—as well as their transformative potential. Cross’s positivity might seem to inform Bon Bon’s outlook. And yet the narrator early on warns us he is no Dr. Pangloss, and it might also be said that elsewhere the novel, particularly in his father’s experiments, worthy of the Academy of Lugano, seems to mock the models Cross invented and refined. Reintroducing slavery and segregation, and then being tried for it, seems ironically to free Bon Bon from the archetypal fetter that Cross and others wanted to unlock, black guilt.
That’s the bitch of it, to be on trial for my life and for the first time ever not feel guilty. That omnipresent guilt that’s as black as fast-food apple pie and prison basketball is finally gone, and it feels almost white to be unburdened from the racial shame that makes a bespectacled college freshman dread Fried Chicken Fridays at the dining hall.
In the process Beatty introduces us to, or rather recovers, an alternative black history and reality, just as Dickens is recovered via homemade bottom-up boundaries and signage. Although Bon Bon does proactively bring back Dickens by compulsively painting the boundary in white paint, he does not seem to be the conscious or proactive instigator of slavery. But neither is he a passive fatalist, manipulated by the stubborn insistence of Hominy. His enjoyment in mercilessly thrashing Hominy seems linked to his own thrashing by his father in a social experiment, which was meant to prove that black people would come to the victim’s rescue. As it turned out, the neighbourhood gleefully joined in the mugging and beating.
As to those accusations of too-brief character descriptions and unorthodox plot developments, I think they are answered by the experimental nature of this novel. The elliptical way in which this deceptively ‘easy’ narrated story, chock full of disconnections, has been constructed reminded me uncannily of the delicate, camp and witty stories of Ronald Firbank (and I’m not just thinking of “Prancing Nigger”), perhaps especially in Beatty’s elegiac weed-informed evocations via segregated bus of the nocturnal Californian ‘stank’. However, the relative obscurity of the novel’s references makes me wonder is it just me being white, British, marooned in Asia, or might US readers of any hue struggle similarly?
What are we to make of the names of the characters? Hominy gestures to slavery food, turned now into highbrow fashionable eating, or a foil to fellow-Little Rascal Alfa Alfa. Bon Bon, a name given by Marpessa and recalling a French sweet, may be related to their sexual relationship; it is also associated with the delicious peaches and other crops he organically grows. But if the name of Bon Bon’s beloved bus driving “bitch next door” Marpessa Delissa may be translated as Amazon who gives pleasure, does the creepy Foy Cheshire translate to cheesy feast? Marpessa falls in love all over again with Bon Bon as she smokes his freshly grown Aphasia.
Beatty’s satirical humour seems to operate from the margins, well-rehearsed with a not-so-subtle sting in the tail catching some off guard. Non-blacks are ready consumers of black, and anti-black, culture but what do we make of the spectacle of blacks consuming the products of a racist past? Bon Bon, Hominy, and their friends and associates finally get to view the long-lost reels of the Little Rascals movies: “Stocked with watermelon, gin, and lemonade, and a 16 mm projector, we readied for an enjoyable evening of grainy black-and-white old-time “Yassuh, boss” racism unseen since the days of Birth of a Nation and whatever’s on ESPN right now.” I find it telling that the conservative English tabloid The Daily Mail should describe The Sellout as “not for the faint-hearted.” Should literature, even satire, be so richly ‘full on’ ? Even Gulliver’s Travels was more mediated, as would be a modern Singaporean work of satire—but in both of those contexts writers were and are operating in a climate of fear where litigation and imprisonment are real possibilities. Under Obama at least, irony of ironies, Beatty could rail more freely, free to unsqueamishly call out the bullshit. In The Sellout we see hitherto unthinkable book burnings occur in reasonable circumstances: those uncouth, cringeworthy rewrites of Tom Sawyer imposed on the school district. While patently constructed, Beatty’s satire also seems eccentric, insane, demented. The work can be celebrated for its good writing and the creation of unforgettably human African American characters at its heart: Bon Bon, Hominy, Marpessa, King Cuz (“call me Cuz, Cuz”), MC Panache, Stevie, who for all their elliptical sketching are as memorable as Magwitch, Miss Wade, and Sam Weller, and help enact this profound comedy of an ongoing tragedy.
Angus Whitehead is Assistant Professor in Literature at Singapore’s National Institute of Education. A William Blake scholar, Angus is co-editor with Mark Crosby and Troy Patenaude of the essay collection, Re-Envisioning Blake (Palgrave, 2012). With an ever-growing fascination and engagement with Singapore writing, he has edited two collections of short stories by pioneer Singapore writers: Arthur Yap and Gregory Nalpon. He has just completed editing (with Angelia Poon) the first collection of critical essays focussing solely upon Singapore Literature directed at a global readership: Singapore Literature and Culture: Current Directions in Local and Global Contexts (Routledge, forthcoming). His chapter ‘”stick it to the pimp”: Peaches’ Penetration of American Popular Culture’ is included in Tristanne Connolly and Tomoyuki lino eds, Canadian Music and American Culture: Get Away From Me (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2017).