The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Sellout, winner of the Man Booker Prize, is an irreverent, satirical novel about race relations in America, specifically in and around Los Angeles. The nameless narrator is an African-American male of undetermined age who lives and works as a farmer in Dickens, California. Dickens is a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles, notorious for its violence. The narrator is smart, college-educated, sarcastic, and witty. Initially, he is a self-interested libertarian who has no interest in giving back to his community. The narrator disagrees with the prevailing black cultural mindset. For example, his father and Foy Cheshire (a washed-up black intellectual who became rich after stealing an idea for a Saturday cartoon series from the narrator’s father) see racism as prevalent everywhere. Though the narrator himself has experienced racism firsthand, he also knows that race relations are far better than they used to be, though they still require cultivation. He sees the issue to be more about class and “opportunity kicked aside.” When the City of Dickens is “deleted” from the map to increase the property values of homes and business surrounding the area, the narrator takes it upon himself to restore Dickens with the help of his friend Hominy Jenkins.
Hominy Jenkins is an elderly African-American man in his eighties. He is a local celebrity for being the final remaining living member of the Little Rascals. Hominy is well-loved and well-respected, but he is heartbroken when the City of Dickens is “deleted”. Hominy, who has experienced the most vile racism of anyone in the neighborhood, feels powerless and used like a slave. He opts to become the narrator’s slave. The narrator grudgingly takes on Hominy as a slave, as Hominy insists. The narrator and Hominy set about marking the boundaries of Dickens with spray paint. They put up signs for Dickens and seek to re-institute segregation in the community as a way to bring people together. It will serve as a reminder of how far they have come and of how far they still have to go. The narrator’s work enrages people like Foy, who condemns the narrator as a “Sellout.” The narrator’s attempts to integrate the all-minority Chaff Middle School with five white kids are opposed on racist grounds by Foy, who ends up shooting the narrator. It is during this time that the narrator’s holding of Hominy as a slave and his work in segregation are discovered. The two factors earn him a case tried before the Supreme Court.
The narrator recognizes that, although racism is nowhere nearly as bad as it used to be, it still exists and must be dealt with, rather than ignored or exaggerated. For example, a truth that most people ignore is that Los Angeles is one of the most segregated cities in the world. The narrator approves of young white people and black writers at the Atlantic magazine who are willing to risk controversy by having conversations about race. He opposes people like Foy who want to shut down debate and then control the narrative, or people like a black comedian who chases white people out of the audience by saying that this is “our thing.” This timely novel is sure to spur conversation and debate about the current status of race relations in our country.
Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, December 5. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, December 7 for a discussion of The Sellout at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets monthly all year long. Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.