Friday, October 30, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty is one of those books I happened to see in a random email, advertisement, or list that I would normally not pay any attention to. After reading the synopsis, I half-heartedly added it to my to-read list. And only after trying to check it out from the UTSA library since May, only to be deterred by whoever insisted on checking it out until January, did I finally bite the bullet and order it off of Amazon. The book somehow went from being an "I'll probably end up deleting this off of my wish list," to an "I need to read this book as soon as possible and get it onto the blog." Not exactly sure how that happened, but here we are.

The Situation: The unnamed narrator of the book hasn't had the easiest childhood. Growing up in the incredibly poor and under served "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens, California - a city that the surrounding area would rather just erase off of the map, so they do - would have been hard enough without a father who insisted on conducting his own homemade social experiments on his son. The narrator was home schooled, physically abused, and forced to be left handed. He would eventually grow up to buy the same house he had grown up on after his father passes away, and now runs one of the few farms in Los Angeles county. And because of his inability to be like his father, he earns the nickname of "sellout," primarily used by one of his father's former colleagues. As crummy as life is in Dickens, he decides to actually do something when the powers that be decide to erase Dickens off of the maps.

The Problem: The only methods for putting Dickens back on the map that our narrator can think of are not only illegal, but insanely controversial. At first he unwittingly becomes a slave owner, although his one "slave" has volunteered, and doesn't actually do any work. But then our narrator decides the way to fix Dickens is by re-establishing something the Civil Rights movement fought against: segregation. It starts with a sign on the bus designating front seats for the elderly, disabled, and white. Eventually the narrator would attempt to segregate the middle school, local businesses, and even the hospital; actions that land him in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. While the narrator is of course trying to make a point, he is also trying to answer two questions: Who am I? And how may I become myself?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that is often placed in the humor category. It may seem strange to describe a book wherein the main character owns a slave and tries to reintroduce segregation as funny, but it is. Of course, it is the kind of funny where you feel bad for laughing but can't seem to stop (think Catch-22, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or anything by Flannery O'Connor). Throughout the entire book, Beatty touches nerve after sensitive nerve concerning race and prejudice in the U.S. and doesn't let up until the very end. The book is often irreverent and always unflinching as the narrator boldly tries to bring up segregation in an attempt to prove that it does actually work (yes, you read that right). Using many moments in history and various pop culture references, Beatty shows just how complicated, and also how not at all complicated, the issue of race is. And the fact that bringing segregation back to Dickens, California seems to do more for the city than desegregation ever has is just one way Beatty plays with the issue of race, while simultaneously not playing at all.

My Verdict: A book where the "N" word and the "F" word make an appearance on almost every page is going to make even the most easy-going, liberal minded person a little uncomfortable at least once. And even though that may be the point, I never felt like the book was obnoxious or annoying about it, though I am sure many others will feel differently. Beatty doesn't pull punches, touching on an incredibly sensitive subject with almost complete insensitivity, while also being incredibly serious. It's a weird line to walk, but somehow Beatty does it. There are moments that go too far, but they are almost always followed up by moments where I had to admit that a fair point had been made. The Sellout is a book that gets readers to think, while making them laugh. If you have to learn about race in the U.S. and face some seriously messed up and horrible truths about our country, you might as well get a good laugh out of it.

Favorite Moment: When the narrator describes how his unfunny father told jokes at open mic night - in APA format (ha!).

Favorite Character: This is hard because all of the characters in this book are fairly ridiculous and mostly awful people. But isn't that the way it is in real life? So I will pick the narrator, because at least he is being honest about the ridiculousness, even if he doesn't fully understand it all. 

Recommended Reading: How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston would be a fantastic follow-up, or even introduction, to this book. And if it is more irreverent humor that will make you inappropriately laugh out loud that you're after, there is also The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. 

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