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 is our thing?” (287-288).
This is not an easy book, despite its humour. But with a bit of stamina, you get gems like these.