‘Like that black president, you’d think … you’d get used to square watermelons, but somehow you never do,’ says Me, the disingenuous black narrator of Paul Beatty’s latest, Booker-shortlisted novel during one of his many raucous comic riffs. A resident of the anomalously named fictional Los Angeles suburb of Dickens (imagine if Slough were called Proust), Me is hauled before the Supreme Court of the United States for attempting to segregate a local school and bring back slavery. What follows is a biting attack on racism in America, relayed in a series of antic flashbacks that stylistically recall both Vonnegut and Heller, as well as the laconic register of Ellison and the demotic glide of Iceberg Slim.
From its great first line (‘This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything’), Me’s wiseass monologue systematically deconstructs epidemic bigotry in the country he once loved. Billed as a ‘caustic satire’, The Sellout really does have a zinger on every page. In Dickens, a place where ‘it’s the child who raises the parents’, traffic signs flag up ‘FALLING HOME PRICES’ and warn of ‘BLACK ON BLACK CRIME AHEAD’. Its inhabitants are ‘people for whom the phrase “Well, if you put a gun to my head…” isn’t theoretical.’ And since it was planned as an all-black neighbourhood (an echo of Zora Neale Hurston’s Eatonville), everyone grew up ‘with thankfully little exposure to infinity pools, homemade foie gras, and American ballet’. Beatty’s is a hip, irreverent, salty and above all militant voice, one that becomes hard to resist.
Why the unstoppable Me wants to return his neighbourhood to the Jim Crow laws of a hundred years ago is a complicated business. It takes some time to become clear, though one reason is that Dickens is losing its black identity to whites. Another is the killing of his social scientist father by the LAPD during a shootout. This tragedy opens Me’s eyes to the fact that racism has never really gone away in America. His book-length psychomachia boils down to the question of how a black (or Mexican) man is to deal with the racist inheritance of the USA. Forever seeking closure or proof of equality, Me finds himself outraged afresh every day by the ‘endless torrent of racist online commentary’, and much worse besides. Recruiting Hominey, the neighbourhood’s most famous resident and a child star in the 1930s and 1940s of the television programme Our Gang (‘the best in American racial prejudice in Blu-ray’), he sets out to seek retribution for age-old crimes. Yet the book is so episodic, and goes at such a hurtle from the beginning, that the digressions and set pieces take over the quest. Luckily, most of these are wickedly funny, such as when, after suggesting racism doesn’t exist, the young Me is taken by his father to a Mississippi gas station peopled by Deliverance-style goons and asked to whistle at a white woman. Or when Hominey volunteers to be his slave, electing to call him ‘Massa’, which leads Me to feel ‘a refreshing hint of the dominion the landed Confederacy must have felt’. This abasement culminates in Hominey’s visit to a BDSM dungeon to have racial abuse fired at him by a Scarlett O’Hara lookalike: ‘The first five “coons”, “jigaboos”, “tar babies” and “Sambos” were free. After that, it was three dollars an epithet.’ Laughter in the dark, indeed.
While some of the novel’s riffs read like virtuoso stand-up routines (on suicidal black men: ‘no matter how much heroin and R. Kelly they had in their systems, they absolutely could not fly’), The Sellout triumphs in its anatomisation of America today. Beatty’s delight in mixing high and low registers, his reiteration of the N-word until one (almost) becomes immune to its pejorative sting and his absurdist, carnivalesque rants belie the penetrating social analysis beneath. With an intolerant Republican comb-over currently vying for the White House, Beatty rightly insists that racism is an issue we can’t turn away from. It’s so ingrained in America’s history and literature that it’s futile to even try to ignore it. As his narrator laconically puts it, redacting the N-word from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be like trying to ‘disinvent the watermelon’.