Thursday, November 30, 2017

Review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Oneworld, 2015)

The Sellout is the story of how the unnamed narrator – called ‘The Sellout’ by one character, and ‘Bonbon’ by another – becomes infamous through his efforts to place Dickens, a town in South Central Los Angeles, back onto the map and to challenge ideas of race and racism within the black community. Bought up and home-schooled on a small two acre urban farm by his single father, a reasonably well-known psychology/sociology professor, The Sellout has a deep appreciation of the structural violence committed against and by the black community. Drawing on this knowledge his method is to use situationalist-like tactics to unsettle and disrupt deep-rooted thinking and social relations, including painting the old city boundary back onto the landscape, altering road signs, making a city block appear as if an exclusive white school is about to be built there, placing signs on buses to create white-only areas, and generally re-segregating the community, not only between white and black, but also the Mexicans, Asians, etc. Aiding him in the task is Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, a group of black kids who starred in a dozens of short movies from the 1930s-50s playing racist stereotypes, who self-declares himself the narrator’s slave. While his work seems to be having a positive effect on those living in Dickens, through some strange reverse-psychology, his actions land him in hot water and a case that makes its way to the Supreme Court.

I loved The Sellout. It’s smart, sassy, outrageous, knowledgeable, and laugh-out loud funny. It is highly entertaining tale, with a great set of characters and an engaging storyline, yet also makes one reflect and think on a whole bunch of social issues and the history of race relations and places. It might well be the best recent book on race and racism in contemporary United States and I would love to see it taught on the school curriculum. At the same time I’m grateful I don’t belong to a book group as I suspect we’d need a few months to discuss everything going on in the narrative rather than a couple of hours. It’s easy to understand why it has won a number of major awards. Definitely worth reading, and I plan to read Paul Beatty’s other books.

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