the sellout review

The Sellout – winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, written by Paul Beatty, generally lauded for its biting humour and unflinching look at black America today. (I’ll note this now – satire is very difficult to review. Racial satire is proving near-impossible for me to review. But here we go!)

The Sellout is a black farmer in the middle of LA. He has inherited the title of n***** whisperer from his father (a role which basically involves convincing various members of the community not to kill themselves). He attempts to re-segregate his town – causing a rise in high school graduation in the black community. And, oh yeah, he also owns a slave.

As you can probably tell, this is not your regular novel. There is no real plot or structure to the book. The reader is just following the Sellout through his daily life as he pines for Marpessa, a bus driver whose seats have been re-segregated, and he gives up trying to live up to his father’s expectations. Odd and witty and slightly arrogant, the Sellout (also known as Bonbon) is a character unlike any other.

I am not a person of colour. So I’ll admit that I did find aspects of the book quite unsettling. But that, I think, is entirely the point of The Sellout. (I love the fact that its win annoyed many white literati. They whine that they don’t know enough about black culture to understand its references, and complain that it wasn’t written for them. And that I think is entirely true. They need to sit down, shut up, and read a book that doesn’t pander to white guilt or constantly reference Foucault.)

I’ll round this off with an excerpt from the very end of the novel:

When I think about that night, the black comedian chasing the white couple into the night, their tails and assumed histories between their legs, I don’t think about right or wrong. No, when my thoughts go back to that evening, I think about my own silence. Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear. I guess that’s why I’m so quiet and such a good whisperer, n***** and otherwise. It’s because I’m always afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep. That’s what I liked about this man, although I didn’t agree with him when he said, “Get out. This is our thing.” I respected that he didn’t give a fuck. But I wish I hadn’t been so scared, that I had the nerve to stand in protest. Not to castigate him for what he did or to stick up for the aggrieved white people. After all, they could’ve stood up for themselves, called in the authorities or their God, and smote everybody in the place, but I wish I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: “So what exactly isΒ our thing?” (287-288).

This is not an easy book, despite its humour. But with a bit of stamina, you get gems like these.


10 thoughts on “the sellout review

  1. Brendon says:

    A difficult undertaking to review this book! It sounds like a book I must add to my reading list. I do love a good satire book and racial satire seems like something I need to read at this moment. Thank you for sharing your thoughts even though it might be hard to put any of it into words. I will definitely be looking into this!


    • whatthelog says:

      Thanks πŸ™‚ I was really worried about posting this – I’m so obviously not the intended audience that I wondered whether it was a bit presumptuous to write a review. But I didn’t want such an important prize-winner to go unmentioned.


  2. Creatyvebooks says:

    I know this was probably a tough book to review but you did an amazing job because my ass is about to purchase this book. Heard things here and there but sadly I forgot about it. Thanks to your review I’ll now have this book on my shelf shortly.

    Also I’m glad you read it even though you think you weren’t the intended audience. That’s what so great about the book community.


    • whatthelog says:

      Oh fantastic, that’s what I love to hear!
      I 100% agree – and that’s the point of reading, surely! I don’t want to just read about people like myself, because I’d never learn anything.
      Thanks for commenting πŸ˜€

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Grab the Lapels says:

    I think if a book makes a person uncomfortable, he/she is totally the audience. I hate when people only read books that make them feel good. Too many times I read a book review that claims the book was not good because the reviewer couldn’t “relate” to it. If this was how we lived our real lives, how segregated we would be. I get the feeling that with a background in African American literature I would get the references in this book. For those who don’t get them, that might be a reason to go read more Black Lit!


  4. womanseekstypewriter says:

    I love your review, you are right in what you say. As well as people banging on about not being the intended audience I have been completely baffled by people insisting it is laugh out loud hilarious – I think they are trying to cover the fact that they might not have quite ‘got it’. I found this thought provoking and controversial and I think I am the target audience but also not… I guiltily know the half references, I can fill in those blanks later in the book with educated guesses – all of which seems to tell me I can do better and be better… strong message.


    • whatthelog says:

      Thank you! I agree totally – I ‘got’ some stuff but not others, and that’s absolutely fine. It really made me think about the Man Booker Prize too, and how this might help open it up to more diverse publications. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      • womanseekstypewriter says:

        I really hope it does too. There are some prize winners I love (Roddy Doyle, Ian McEwan, J. M. Coetzee) but now the pool is widened I hope many more favourites can get the attention they need, particularly from authors writing in English but not necessarily from the UK.


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