Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Some books are so unlike any others that it takes a while to understand what is happening when you start reading them. Their characters are unfamiliar and the situations unrecognisable, and even bizarre.

That was the case when I started reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

The Sellout was entirely different to any other book I had read. Narrated by the son of a single father, a sociologist psychopathically obsessed with racism, who was killed in a drive-by shooting.  He comes up with ways of addressing wrongs in his own way, touching on issues of slavery and segregation.

It was wickedly funny, unremittingly clever and as lively as a hyperactive three-year-old, providing an alternative view of racism, rich with sarcasm and irony.

But, it was no easy-read. I never felt like I was fully engaged with the story, as impressed as I was with the witty and startlingly original ideas that Beatty put on the page. Although I found that it was difficult to read the book as a whole, there were many passages within the book that deserved to be savoured and re-read. Perhaps its very cleverness stood in the way of me settling into the story, and of me suspending disbelief enough to fully engage with the story.

But, does that matter? Do readers need to feel part of a story to appreciate the artistry before them? I don’t think so. I feel that I benefited greatly from the experience of reading The Sellout, from its humour to its wit and insight.

So, I think the best way to do justice to this book is to list some of my favourite lines that made me chuckle or pause to re-read:

  • “Although they looked, more or less, like everyone else at the park, from the way they eyed everyone with such disdain, it was hard to tell if they were from Dickens. Like Nazis at a Ku Klux Klan rally, they were comfortable ideologically, but not in terms of corporate culture.”
  • “The sirens were half a town away. Even when the county was flush with property tax revenue on overvalued homes, Dickens never received its fair share of civil services. And now, with the cutbacks and graft, the response time is measured in eons, the same switchboard operators who took the calls from the Holocaust, Rwanda, Wounded Knee, and Pompeii still at their posts.”
  • “Washington, D.C., with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues Doric Columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms).”
  • “I’m reclined at an angle just short of detention-room nonchalance, but definitely well past courtroom contempt.”
  • “She wants me to sit up straight, but the legendary civil disobedient that I am, I defiantly tilt myself even farther back in the chair, only to crash to the floor in a painful pratfall of inept nonviolent resistance.”
  • “I’m so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin  tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-at-having books?”

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