The Sellout – Paul Beatty

I saw it on prominent shelves in bookshops a few months back, so I knew this book was important. Then I heard it won the 2016 Man Booker Prize, so it must have made quite an impression.

The Sellout is not what I expected it to be, but I can see why there has been quite a bit of fuss around it.

The whole book is set in a predominantly (if not completely) black town called Dickens in California and it is entirely based on racism. Honestly, it took me a while to get over the initial shock of this and to get into the story. The prologue felt like a long, incoherent rant about black hate and I wasn’t sure what was going on. This may have been intentional though, as the narrator/protagonist was meant to be high.

Never have I ever seen the word ‘nigger’ pass before my eyes so frequently as it did in this novel. It was a rare insight into racism from the perspective of a black community.

Our main character is lovable and rational, a farmer who loves his trade and serves his community with delicious fruits and vegetables. He is known as the ‘nigger whisperer’, taking over his father’s role of talking townspeople down from crazy escapades.

When the town of Dickens is literally wiped off the map and no longer acknowledged, he becomes a bit of an extremist and puts up signs himself, takes on a slave and sets out to segregate the local school. The way he does such extreme things in such a carefree way is quite amusing.

Beatty does include some clever and amusing wit in his writing. For example:

In school, whenever I had to do something like memorise the periodic table, my father would say the key to doing boring tasks is to think about not so much what you’re doing but the importance of why you’re doing it. Though when I asked him if slavery wouldn’t have been less psychologically damaging if they’d thought of it as “gardening”, I got a vicious beating that would’ve made Kunta Kinte wince.

Probably a lot of references have gone over my head, and like a lot of white people reading this I sort of felt like an outsider. I can’t connect with the centuries of racial misunderstanding that African-Americans do, and all the terms and phrases and jokes. But I think that’s good. Though it was uncomfortable to read, I think I was meant to feel like an outsider. Because, well, on this topic I am. I’ll never fully get it.


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