Bük Kloob is a series of book reviews loosely related to a book club I started.
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is trending this week—and not for a great reason. At an Australian book fair, Beatty had an uncomfortable encounter with a well intentioned white intellectual who proved much of the critiques that The Sellout makes. It was a bittersweet triumph that spoke to the power of the book.
It’s easy to see how mistakes like this can be made because, well, that’s what neo-liberals have been parading as post-racial for years. Are they excusable though? No, but you can peek into the mind of liberal ignorance by sweeping through The Sellout‘s complex and straightforward premise. The book follows a young-ish black narrator who lives in the fictional Los Angeles sub-city of Dickens, an alternatey universe Compton that is rich with activities and characters. The narrator works as a farmer but, upon realizing the city has essentially been dissolved of its official city status, he seeks to rebuild the city and instill pride by re-segregating the community.
Yes, that sounds bonkers (It is.) but Beatty’s ability to glide through difficult subjects on the wings of humor carry the book’s many heavy themes and subjects into another universe of thought. It is a masterpiece of satire that points the finger in all directions. It seeks to critique the black, white, asian, hispanic, gay, straight, rich, poor, American, foreign, past, present, future: his observational cuts dissect the fresh corpse of America so expertly. It’s quite funny, too.
The work is an instant classic that straddles high literature with common fiction. It’s approachable while seeking to do bigger things than stand as a funny bit of fiction. Beatty measures uncomfortable critique alongside wild absurdism. For instance, a character named Hominy is a geriatric actor who played black stereotypes his entire life and lives in the racial PTSD gifted to him by Hollywood. The result is the character craving to be a slave—to the extent of being whipped—even when he isn’t on camera. His desire to be put to work and beaten is a shocking metaphor but is undeniably hilarious. To say that Hominy is a dead serious portrait of America’s problems kind of misses Beatty’s point.
And there are many characters like Hominy: the pseudo intellectual man of color Foy; the somewhat of a foil bus driver/lover Marpesa; the woke gangster King Cuz; the narrator’s vicious but inventive father; and so many more. The locations follow this funny manner from Dum Dum Donuts to a fake elementary school for white children only. For Angelenos, the book is a particular treasure as it has a local depth that might be lost on those who aren’t intimately familiar with the city. For artists, it suggests an incredible performativity that not even Kara Walker could touch. For activists, it’s a lesson on understanding what message you are trying to sell.
Unsurprisingly, The Sellout won the Man Booker prize in 2016 and Beatty the first American to take the prize. It’s an illuminating, hilarious book that is full of racial slurs all intended to prickle the skin until it tickles. It’s a book that very smart high school teachers will soon have their AP English teachers read in parallel with Huckleberry Finn as a means to show the yin and yang of writing about and observing race in America.
It’s not necessarily an “insider” book but is the type of read that shows one’s hand as it relates to viewing the world today. You don’t come out able to understand if the glass of America is half full or half empty but you can very clearly see who has the lights on in their house and who is still in the dark in these conversations. It’s situations like the uncomfortable Australian encounter that reveal just how unilluminated some are.