Book Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2/5)

7 Jun

I was going to read this last year, but I was booked on a trip (that ended up being canceled) when my book club read it. This time around, the other book club was set to read it and I had no reason to demure. I was excited to read the first book written by an American to win the Man Booker Prize. Until I wasn’t.

Cover image via Goodreads

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Summary from Goodreads:

A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality – the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens – on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles – the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident – the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins – he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

I really wanted to like this book. I wanted to find it funny. I wanted to see the satire in it. But I found it sad. I felt like it perpetuated stereotypes. I felt pity for the main character, never respect or admiration for what he did. I felt that after the Prologue that maybe he was a man to be followed and respected, someone who could change things. But I found him weak and I wanted the book to end so I could move on to something else.

The characters were all jokes. Hominy was losing his mind. Foy was always hiding something. Marpessa should have been fired. Me (that’s what I’ll call the narrator) cared a lot but seemingly about the wrong things. I couldn’t like any of the characters and they were so unpredictable because they were so satirical that I couldn’t like them either.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Marpessa. She seemed to know what she wanted and how to go after it. (The fact that it involved cheating on her husband aside.) I liked the respect she had for her job and the way she had control of her bus. I laughed when she took it home with her each night so that it could end up in a museum, unlike Rosa Parks’ bus.

The characters were hard for me to relate to. Besides geographic and racial differences, I just couldn’t understand the logic of bringing back segregation and slavery. It was too much of a stretch for me. It was the satire and for me, it was too much. It wasn’t funny enough to be a comedy and not sad enough to be a tragedy.

Paul Beatty
Image via the Wall Street Journal

I liked the bus ride to the ocean and the ensuing party. It reminded me of a good time that I would have loved to have. In the world of this book, having everyone quit their jobs to join the party seemed perfect and it made sense to drive the bus right into the ocean. It was a fun scene and it was the last moment before the book took what I thought was too much of a weird direction.

Foy’s sections were my least favorite. He was clearly a man past his prime who was looking to keep up appearances he should have let drop and he was sad. You knew he was going to do something stupid from the beginning so I just waited for that time bomb to blow and was still disappointed when it did. I didn’t feel his big secret was big enough to hide all that time and it makes more sense with his character for him to want to tell everyone and put his own spin on the story.

Satires are always supposed to make the reader think. This story and premise seem ridiculous but they address a very real problem in our society. Could reinstituting slavery and segregation solve the problems this book addresses? Doubtful. But are the solutions that the book sees the real and tangible solutions we need to work toward. Of course. If we’re not going to segregate buses and schools, what else can we do to get to the solution we need?

Writer’s Takeaway: I’ve heard since reading this that Beatty doesn’t consider the book a satire, which confuses me beyond belief. I thought it was a satire and I’m not a fan of that style in general. I remember reading A Modest Proposal in school and thinking it was ridiculous. At least that piece had a paragraph of ‘ridiculous solutions’ that proposed actual ways to resolve the problem. I didn’t feel this book left us with any ideas for how the problem could be reasonably solved. I wished Beatty left us with some ideas at least.

This book fell through the cracks for me. It wasn’t funny enough or sad enough of thought-provoking enough. I kept waiting for something to happen which would make me think, “Oh! That’s what Beatty really thinks would help the racial problem in the US.” but I never had that moment. Two out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
The Sellout by Paul Beatty | And This is What We Thought
Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty | Paper Cups & Paperbacks
The Sellout – Paul Beatty | crazybookladyreviews
Review: ‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty | Ephemereality
“A series of complex riffs on a theme”- The Sellout by Paul Beatty | Bookmunch



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