BOOK REVIEW - The Sellout

As a pastor, I read a lot about theology and church leadership. But I have a confession: If I only read pastor books, I think I would go crazy. Now and then I just need a good story. Fiction — good fiction — does more than entertain, in my opinion. It connects to something deeper than philosophy and dictum. It tells the truth without the facts.

For the past few years, I have made a habit of reading one of the year’s best novels. In 2015, it was the Parisian, perplexing, and Nobel Prize-winning Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano. In 2014, I chased Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch across the globe after it won a Pulitzer. And in 2013, it was Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, which won the National Book Award and convinced Ang Lee it was worth making a movie. This year, I chose Paul Beatty’s The Sellout because it won the Man Booker Prize and its topic – race and poverty from the viewpoint of a fictional character in South Central Los Angeles – seemed particularly timely.  

The Sellout is a gut-punching, funny, cynical, eye-opening tall tale about an urban farmer who tries to re-segregate his city and winds up smoking pot with a bailiff while his case is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Half cultural expose and half satiric fantasy, The Sellout presents life in poor America like a bad drug trip; relentlessly hopeless and hilariously unlikely. Paul Beatty, (think Dave Chappelle with an MFA) communicates the urgent ugliness of race relations, income disparity, and cultural conflict by presenting it alongside nonsensical plot elements that are only slightly more absurd than reality. The main character in The Sellout is a farmer who rides a horse through Los Angeles streets and frequents a meeting of community elders that calls itself the Dum Dum Intellectuals because, we are told, it meets at a Dum Dum Donuts shop, but really because, we intuit, education and ebonics share the same ghettoed reality in parts of America farthest from an Applebees. Neither really matters.  

Full of such contradictions and craziness, The Sellout can’t help but be funny, but often in a way that left me, as a white reader, wondering if I should laugh. For instance, is this line funny, racist, or both? 

Every black male, I don’t care what shade or political persuasion he is, secretly thinks he can do one of three things better than anyone in the world: play basketball, rap, or tell jokes.

The book is written in first person, and the main character is only referred to by his last name, Me, and his nickname, Sellout. The Sellout is family friends with a retired child actor named Hominy who was a second-tier regular among the L’il Rascals cast and now pines for the days when he was famous, people recognized him, and black culture was a novelty. Hominy’s viewpoint serves as a foil for Beatty’s cultural commentary: 

For Hominy any day when he could personify American primitivism was a good ol’ day. It meant that he was still alive, and sometimes even the carnival coon in the dunk tank misses the attention. And this country, the latent high school homosexual that it is, the mulatto passing for white that it is, the Neanderthal incessantly plucking its unibrow that it is, needs people like him. It needs somebody to throw baseballs at, to fag-bash, to nigger-stomp, to invade, to embargo. Anything that, like baseball, keeps a country that’s constantly preening in the mirror from actually looking in the mirror and remembering where the bodies are buried.

In fact, Hominy’s nostalgia (aided by his weed) is so strong that he indentures himself to the Sellout. This, along with a head-spinning turn of non-sequiturs puts the Sellout, a black man, in the position of slaveholder and segregationist in modern-day South Central, which is what leads him to the Supreme Court. 

For readers of privilege, The Sellout is not only a work of satire, but of education. Closing its final page left me with a feeling I recognized from a few years ago when I binge-watched The Wire. Things are, apparently, so bad that they can only be accurately described with nonsense. It’s no accident that the fictional L.A. County township that serves as the novel’s setting is named Dickens. And in that way The Sellout embraces a sort-of gallows humor. Hominy’s confused racial identity and eventual emancipation carry a subtle and important theme, but they don’t carry any hope. Reform is a fool’s errand and equality is beside the point.  

If you read The Sellout, be prepared to be shocked and disheartened. The Sellout is a remarkable and uncomfortable literary stand-up routine. It is sometimes raunchy and riddled with the profanity, including myriad uses of the n-word. It is a memorable and illuminating romp. It is not for everyone. But it certainly deserves its place among my once-in-a-while list of modern literary readings.