COLUMN: As 2017 Begins, Looking Back on One of Last Year's Great Books


The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages

By Simone Grace Seol

As a new year begins — with many great new books rolling off the presses — I’ve been thinking about some of the best books of 2016, and high on that list is The Sellout.  It had enviable success not only in sales, but in prestigious awards — notably last year’s Man Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction, and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature.

There is a great deal to admire about The Sellout. I love when an author reveals right off the bat what kind of a book he is writing. When a book opens with: "This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything," you know it's going to make you uncomfortable (at least if you are, like me, not black). In the next page, the narrator likens Washington, D.C. to ancient Rome, compares its tourists to pilgrims in a hajj, and imagines Abraham Lincoln getting up from his Memorial and break-dancing. Flipping through the rest of the book, you might notice that one of the chapters is titled "Too Many Mexicans," and know that you're in for storytelling of raucous irreverence.

The Sellout is the story of a black man raised by a single father -- a frustrated intellectual and academic psychologist. The father sees a golden opportunity to run a private laboratory and subjects his son to experiments that would never pass muster of the Institutional Review Board.

Our protagonist grows up to become a university-educated farmer, gets involved in efforts to save his crumbling city (the ominously named “Dickens”), and in the end, stands trial at the federal court for resurrecting slavery and apartheid. The story is intelligent satire that holds up a mirror to the reality of African-American life today with all of its boons, tragedies, and weight of historic trauma. The Sellout pulls no punches but it defies easy packaging, much like the protagonist who refuses to name himself.

Many of Beatty's jokes and references are unmistakably of ”Post-racial America" -- the black president, police shootings and Kara Walker's art. But he somehow makes us feel less alone in this absurd and tragicomic time by drawing from his hefty knowledge of world history, evoking foibles from times as remote as ancient Greece and places as remote as Kinshasa. Beatty's imagination and intelligence are capacious.
I have read the book twice, and I am still unsure where satire begins and ends. For instance, the narrator's father is shot to death by the police for no good reason (for which, in a nod to the grotesque headlines of our time, no one is punished). Following the death, the son ruminates: "I never had the nerve to ask him if it was really true that I'd spent the sensorimotor and preoperational stages of my life with one hand tied to my back." On my first read, engrossed by the heartbreakingly zippy turns of the story, I read that sentence at face value. On my second, I couldn't believe I missed such a glaringly obvious metaphor for African American history.

Then I felt unsure whether I got it right and whether there were even more layers I missed. This feeling of wobbliness continues throughout. Beatty's brand of satire jabs at your heart, then takes your moral compass and analytic associations and shakes them up and down. Among the most memorable characters is Hominy Jenkins, a mentally disturbed 80-year-old man who has tried to kill himself more than once. At once heartrending and hilarious, Hominy forces himself on our meek narrator as a slave despite his would-be master’s continued protests. He serves devotedly and idiosyncratically, asking -- nay, begging -- for beatings and abuse, to the great inconvenience and pain of the narrator. This is the crime of slavery for which he would be tried in federal court. The relationship is clearly an allegorical psychodrama, but one that makes an audience member twitch in her seat.
And it goes on. Take this part:

The black experience used to come with lots of bullshit, but at least there was some fucking privacy. Our slang and debased fashion sense didn't cross over until years after the fact . . . the Internet proliferation of black pornography has given anybody with a twenty-five-dollar-a-month membership pass, or a lack of regard for intellectual property rights, access to our once-idiosyncratic sexual techniques.

In these few sentences, Beatty manages to make you laugh (uneasily), critique cultural appropriation and, at the same time, upend your sense of who is judging and who is being judged; who is mocking and who is being mocked. He judges his own, judges you for judging them, then catches you judging yourself, peering over at them. His characters are as funny and tenderly human as any you would recognize around you.

Contemplation and admiration are your ways into the book, given what a nimble writer Beatty is. And maybe that's the point, to sink the non-black reader into a sensation more uncomfortable than the simplicity of outrage or grief (though I was not spared those) -- that of complicity by mere fact of participation in humanity, with our voyeurism, desires, power plays and shortsightedness.

For readers who might have a similar sense of humor to mine, I feel a duty to reveal that there is an irreverent joke at the expense of nearly every single ethnicity and political stripe. But somehow, the jokes amplify, rather than mute, the tragedy. Indeed, few other authors have so deftly married laughter and despair. The Sellout is a staggeringly important book worth more than one careful read, and proof that a worthy novel can make you laugh while also weaving together the pure force of moral reckoning and deep humanity.