“I’m high as hell, but not high enough not to know that race is hard to ‘talk about’ because it’s hard to talk about. The prevalence of child abuse in this country is hard to talk about, too, but you never hear people complaining about it. They just don’t talk about it. And when’s the last time you had a calm, measured conversation about the joys of consensual incest? Sometimes things are simply difficult to discuss, but I actually think the country does a decent job of addressing race, and when folks say, ‘Why can’t we talk about race more honestly?’ What they really mean is ‘Why can’t you niggers be reasonable?’ or ‘Fuck you, white boy. If I said what I really wanted to say, I’d get fired faster than you’d fire me if race were any easier to talk about.’ And by race we mean ‘niggers,’ because no one of any persuasion seems to have any difficulty talking out-of-pocket shit about Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and America’s newest race, the Celebrity.”
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout won this year’s Tournament of Books, competing against Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Now that I’ve read both of them, I understand why The Sellout won the judgment by a a vote of 12 to 7. To me it is definitely the more daring, more original, harder-edged novel. One judge said that there was not one sentence that he wouldn’t have sold his entire glass eye collection to have written. I get it now – Beatty has written something so scathing and hilarious that I was simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated after having just read the prologue.
It’s nearly impossible to explain what this book is “about,” a question I don’t enjoy at any time. But the story centers on a black man living in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, California, which is situated on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Our narrator is called BonBon by Marpessa, the lady he has loved off and on his whole life, but we never learn his real first name. He was raised and home-schooled by a wacky, kind of abusive single father, who was a sociologist and made BonBon the subject of his racially centered experiments. They had a house in The Farms, a ten square-block section of Dickens mandated by the city’s charter to be “residential agriculture.” After his father’s death, he grows various fruits and weed, just selling a little of the latter for gas money. His renowned satsuma mandarin tree, with its magically delicious oranges, looms large in the story line.
Oh yeah, and he takes a slave. An old man, the last surviving Little Rascal, named Hominy Jenkins. And after Dickens is erased from the map, and the signs pointing to the town taken down, he starts segregating the buses and schools in an attempt to get his city back on the map.
The novel operates on this larger than life, bitingly absurd level, where just about anything can happen. But it’s done in such a smart, hilarious, targeted way that you’re cringing in recognition as you laugh. It’s like Beatty’s shined a flashlight on all of us Americans, pointing out our ridiculous habits and fears, pointing out how completely NOT post-racial we are. It’s uncomfortable and thought-provoking like the best satire is supposed to be, and it’s one hell of a ride in the meantime. I am glad I read it and wish I’d read it sooner. You better believe I’ll be offering this one to my book group when it’s my turn to host. Definitely profane, not for the faint of heart, The Sellout is a novel that deserves a wide audience.