The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Published by Picador, 2015
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars for Indiana, 3.5 out of 5 stars for Pete
Re-readability: This one would probably be good to go back to a few decades from now.
Indiana: After I read the first chapter or two, I knew this one was going to be a tough book to review. It’s intricate and bizzare and it covers so many social issues that it’s hard to know where to begin. Obviously, there’s the premise: the African American protagonist tries to bring back segregation and slavery to a teeny-tiny place in California called Dickens.
Pete: And Dickens is a town that has recently vanished from the map. A part of his plan is to bring it back. It’s a book so shocking and blunt that I almost stopped being surprised after the first few chapters. It’s hard to respond to, and I think that was Beatty’s intention—to introduce so many controversial ideas that the reader isn’t sure what to think. But he absolutely succeeded in making me think about some things differently.
Indiana: Agreed. I also just wanted to keep slowing my pace as I read it because there seemed to be so many literary or historical references that I wanted to map out. For instance: why is Dickens called Dickens? He frequently brings up other classic authors as well and I wasn’t ever quite sure why. But I loved the scenes with the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals group that gets together each week to talk about the state of African Americans in Dickens and in the world and how well/not well they’re doing in comparison to other ethnicities.
Pete: The Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals (and Foy Cheshire) were fantastic. I wish I had a better working knowledge of The Little Rascals and Loony Toons—after reading this, I’m sure I’d be pretty astonished at the variety of blatant racism in both. I feel like Beatty sort of took several ideas that he wanted to talk about and strung them together in a loose plot to create this book. Not that this is a bad thing, but the book was definitely more about the ideas than the story.
Indiana: It seemed like that, but he did weave things together with the father/son relationship that the protagonist has with his father. The father is a (somewhat terrifying) social scientist who decides to perform experiments on his son. Then, once the father dies, the son (the protagonist) decides to do a sort-of social experiment on the entire town of Dickens. The segregated bus signs, which eventually turned into a segregated school system and segregated businesses, was comically disturbing. But there’s a line where a character says that the segregation actually brings the town together and makes them realize how far they’ve come. I can understand how it would bring them together, but I don’t know about the latter part.
Pete: The whole book is a “what if” of the most extreme degree. Of course, Beatty isn’t suggesting that anything the protagonist does was a good idea, but they’re all ideas worth thinking about in a cultural context.
Indiana: I think that I’ll have to come back to this one in several years time to see how outlandish it will seem then or to view the social commentary in a new light. It would also be interesting to have high school or college classes read this in the future (as in several decades from now).