In The Sellout Paul Beatty manages to pull off something very rare. He manages to balance social criticism, jokes and some actual humanity. Social criticism has the tendency to take all the air out of a room, because when poorly done everything becomes self serious in the worst possible way. Comedy tends to kill any humanity, because it pushes any real sense of human beings to the side in favor of a punchline. A spark of actual humanity is tough to achieve on its own. The Sellout isn’t a perfect balance, but there’s moments where all three co-exist and when it works it really works.
The basic plot of the book is about the protagonist, named simply Me, dealing with his father and his hometown of Dickens. His father fashioned himself an eccentric social scientist who performed experiments on Me throughout Me’s childhood. The father was also something of a cult hero in the community and was eventually shot by the police. Dickens was wiped off the map in the 1990’s in order to more easily sell surrounding properties to white people. Me can’t bring back his father, so he decides to resurrect the town of Dickens. This journey has him confronting the memories of his father, old friends and the black experience. The book opens at the Supreme Court where Me is on trial. So clearly the journey isn’t necessarily smooth.
This plot is the thrust of the novel, but not the lifeblood of it. The novel shines in random observations, in the odd characters that populate Dickens and the stories that they carry around, in the memories of Me’s childhood. There’s certain important plot points that get a little snowed over by the rich detail that goes into other aspects of the book. Me reintroduces segregation into the local school, but how he gets this done remains a mystery to me even after having read the book. It’s not a problem that really matters in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a loose thread. I’m sure there’s some sentence that explains it away somewhere, but it probably just wasn’t top ten on that particular page.
Another negative might be that Beatty indulges certain linguistic quirks that begin to grate. Take this sentence: “In fact, looters, police officers, and firemen alike used the twenty-four-hour drive-thru window to fuel up on crullers, cinnamon twists, and the surprisingly good lemonade as they fought off the conflagration, the fatigue, and the pesky news crews who asked anyone within arm’s length of a microphone, “Do you think the riots will change anything?”” After a certain amount of three people doing three things for three goals you might start to feel frustrated, angry and annoyed. Once you notice that everything is three things, or someone points it out or a third thing that reveals this trait to you then you might start to see it three, four, five times a page. Sometimes it adds to a certain poetic rhythm, sometimes it’s used for effective storytelling and then sometimes it just seems to be there, because it’s a thing Beatty likes to do.
The social commentary contained in The Sellout is too complicated to unpack for me. It comments on the black experience in post-Obama America, and being neither American or black I really can’t comment on the accuracy or poignancy. What I do feel comfortable saying is that I enjoy the book engaging hard, offensive themes without engaging in simply outrage. Paul Beatty clearly doesn’t care for the current climate of people being offended. At a certain point Me comments on this: ““That’s because if I ever were to be offended, I wouldn’t know what to do. If I’m sad, I cry. If I’m happy, I laugh. If I’m offended, what do I do, state in a clear and sober voice that I’m offended, then walk away in a huff so that I can write a letter to the mayor?”” Being offended doesn’t come from the gut, but the anger and confusion that fuel this novel come from the gut and hit the gut.