The Sellout by Paul Beatty is the 2016 Man Booker winner. This is a savagely satirical look at the black experience sprinkled judiciously with the right amount of sarcasm and wit as told to us by our narrator, a “sellout.” The action takes place in Dickens, California, a town that ceases to exist. It ceased to exist because the county officials wanted to erase the blemish of Dickens from the map. Dickens was bad for tourism and industry. To save the town the narrator decides to take it back to the days of segregation to save or to revitalize the town and its people. It is great history of people and a novel that should sit beside Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman on that shelf of American masterpieces.
“No, I don’t miss my father. I just regret that I never had the nerve to ask him if it was really true that I’d spent the sensorimotor and preoperational stages of my life with one hand tied behind my back. Talk about starting life off with a handicap. Fuck being black. Try learning to crawl, ride a tricycle, cover both eyes while playing peek-a-boo, and constructing a meaningful theory of minds, all with one hand.”
Beatty takes us on a unique adventure with a black man as he wanders through the turning point in his life. The characters around him define him, direct him, and give him purpose. A tyrant father home schooled him. He has a slave, Hominy Jenkins. He lives in a town that ceases to exist so he paints a line around it so as to reestablish the border of Dickens. He’s not as good a “nigger” whisperer as his father but he tries. He uses Latin as often as possible to elevate himself and to reflect his education. He disassociates himself with the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a club his father helped found. He is searching for love. Our narrator is everyone and no one at the same time. This satirical novel had me laugh, cry, and scream in frustration at the obvious story Beatty is telling us, the one we all know and have failed to really address. We still haven’t gotten too much further in America then Huck Finn or Go Set a Watchman. In the immortal words of 45, “Sad!”
One pure truth about America, not the only one, is that we are a racist nation. What makes us great is our diversity. What makes us weak is our diversity. That is why Huck Finn and Go Set a Watchman and now this novel, The Sellout are my choices for the most important American novels. They remind us of this sad fact. From the birth of this nation all the way to today, we are about racism. Everything else is the supporting cast. It couldn’t be more obvious than to look at America during presidents 44 and now 45. Ironically, when our narrator is asked what is the most dangerous word, it isn’t “nigger” he says, it is any word that ends in “–ess”. This is eye-popping mind fuck of a novel that is deserving of all its accolades and more.
Huck had Jim, Scout had Atticus, and our narrator has Hominy Perkins. As Huck lites out for the territory; Scout “can’t beat him (Atticus) or can’t join him”; our narrator has his father’s questions: “I thought of my father and remembered what he told me. You have to ask yourself two questions: Who am I? and How may I become myself?”
And in any great story we always have to ask, “So what happened next?”