THE SELLOUT is a daring book. This biting satire has an African American attempt to resegregate his city (yes, you read that right) to improve his neighborhood while also owning a slave. This, unsurprisingly, ends up getting him into a bit of trouble, and as the novel starts his case is being heard by the Supreme Court. From there, the unnamed narrator (even in his court case’s title, he is referred to as “me”) describes his unorthodox childhood and his bizarre father and how he came to own a slave.
This could easily have failed. Beatty walks a tightrope every single page between being too vague or mild or offending everyone. Luckily, he pulls it off. There are serious discussions about what it means to be African American in here, but almost every paragraph contains some humor, keeping the plot light.
The book is a bit uneven. I found myself ready to put it down after a few pages of the prologue, but I persevered and found it picked up almost immediately afterwards. Certain other sections also weren’t as strong as they could have been, but at least with them I never considered giving up on the book. This is also a problem with some of the humor. Beatty tries to make jokes about nearly everything he describes in the book, and as a consequence for this prolificness, not all hit the mark. Some attempts at humor will have you rolling your eyes or sighing and wishing Beatty would hurry up and advance the plot. Other times he’s on a roll and it’s nonstop laughs for the next few pages.
For example, his slave is the biggest star in the city: as a boy, he was a stand in for the African American member of the Little Rascals. The absurdity of the racist things allowed on television in the 30s is enormous and provides plenty of laughs.
THE SELLOUT may not be the best novel of the year, but it certainly must rank among the funniest. I haven’t laughed as hard at a book since A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. It might not be for everyone, but if the synopsis interests you, it should not be missed. I’ve heard of a few who were unable to make it through the prologue. If you’re struggling and can’t push your way through, just skip it: most of the information given there you can pick up on later in the story.
Also, just last night it was announced THE SELLOUT had won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Past winners include Roberto Bolano, Junot Diaz, and Cormac McCarthy, and Paul Beatty does not seem out of place joining their ranks.