Near the beginning of Jurassic Park, the scientist played by Laura Dern plunges her arms into a gigantic pile of triceratops shit. When I first saw this, I had a gut reaction: “Ew, no! Don’t touch that! It’s shit!” But as the scene goes on, Laura Dern makes it clear that her character is a professional. She studies shit for a living. This is her milieu. We viewers are—like the triceratops shit itself—in good hands.
The Sellout is a novel about racism. Huge, steaming, stinking piles of racism. Racism so ugly and insidious that you want to shiver and walk away. But as readers we are in good hands, because Paul Beatty is a professional—knowledgeable, passionate, and easygoing. Characters in Beatty’s novel call his protagonist a “race reactionary” and a “race pervert.” But you and I might call Beatty the world’s foremost connoisseur of racism.
The Sellout has a plot, which I will describe for you because plots are an important way to begin a conversation about a story, but honestly, the plot of The Sellout is a shambles. It’s a wreck. Scan any page of The Sellout and, if you’re lucky, you might find a couple of paragraphs with topic sentences that mention the overall plot. Everything else will be the kind of extended, wisecracking riff that has characterized Beatty’s fiction ever since his first foray into prose (he started out as a slam poetry champion) with The White Boy Shuffle. But with The Sellout, surely, Beatty’s style of back-talking his own story has found its apotheosis—if this novel were any more digressive it would crumble like the clumps of lint in your dryer.
So! We begin in the present day. Our narrator is on trial before the Supreme Court of the United States. He’s been charged with owning a human slave and attempting to reinstate racial segregation. Both accusations are true, in a way. But the real shocker is that this slave-holding, segregation-loving narrator is not some Stars-and-Bars-waving redneck; he’s a more-or-less rational black man from inner-city Los Angeles. Friends call him Bonbon. His arch-nemesis calls him The Sellout.
How Bonbon came to own a slave and revive segregation is the subject of that wreck of a plot that I mentioned. It moves through four stages. First we learn about Bonbon’s upbringing. Born in fictional Dickens, California—think South Central from Boyz n the Hood—he is raised by a domineering single father, an African-American sociologist named F. K. Me. Bonbon serves as the test subject for his father’s cold-hearted experiments with various racial stimuli. (For example, daddy wears a Ronald Reagan mask and gives his son electric shocks to demonstrate white authority.) In one of the many ridiculous twists in this novel—which lubricate its social satire and diabolical humor—Dickens is the only part of urban Los Angeles that is zoned for agriculture. So Bonbon grows up on a small farm, picking his own cotton and growing watermelons and marijuana. Beatty drops every stereotype of rural blackness into the heart of the LA ghetto. But by the time Bonbon comes of age, Dickens has been wiped off the map. It seems the best way for LA to conceal its blight is to shuffle some paperwork and re-define Dickens out of existence.
In the next three stages, Bonbon takes up three different projects that, together, form the bizarre campaign of civic enhancement that will land him in front of the Supreme Court. He “brings back” the city of Dickens by literally painting a line in the pavement to mark the old neighborhood. (People in the ‘hood rejoice to have their geographic identity back, even if it’s a notorious one.) He accepts Hominy Jenkins as his slave. (The last surviving member of the original cast of The Little Rascals, Hominy is the ultimate, mythical “Magical Negro.” His mind is so warped by the racist character he portrayed that he insists on going through life as a proudly anachronistic house slave.) In the final stage, Bonbon determines that black people—and the Latinos who increasingly populate Dickens—will actually be more motivated to succeed if they can see proof of America’s institutional racism all around them. So he builds a fake, expensive, whites-only school next to the decrepit public one. And he plants a fake sign on the local bus that says “priority seating for seniors, disabled, and whites.” Bus passengers grumble about the sign, “not so much from disbelief that the city had the nerve to reinstitute public segregation, but that it had taken so long to do so.” But Bonbon’s plan works. The bus becomes “the safest place in the city.”
The racism takes them back. Makes them humble. Makes them realize how far we’ve come and, more important, how far we have to go. On that bus it’s like the specter of segregation has brought Dickens together.
Yes, it’s batshit crazy. None of this would ever really work. No one in their right mind would do what Bonbon does. (No real person would be raised the way he was, either.) The only suitable response to each and every sentence in The Sellout is a loud guffaw.
Which is why I love it so very, very much.
This is a novel in which Bill Cosby, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice walk into a donut shop in the worst part of LA, and the former Secretary of State inquires eagerly about the first man she sees, a local gangster named King Cuz.
“That big motherfucker play any football?”
“A little running back in high school.”
“Мои Трусики мокрые,” she said in lip-licking Russian.
I’m no linguist, but my best guess is that it meant Cuz could penetrate her secondary any time he wanted.
No wonder there’s a blurb on the front cover of The Sellout from Sarah Silverman. In the words of his protagonist, Beatty is a “social pyromaniac.” His writing is poetic, Tourettic, hopped up on anger and adrenaline. From one sentence to the next he can be tiresomely clever. Bonbon calls black intellectuals who moonlight at community events in the inner city “wereniggers.” He says of himself, “Like most black males raised in Los Angeles, I’m bilingual only to the extent that I can sexually harass women of all ethnicities in their native languages.” At one point Hominy remarks, apropos of almost nothing, “You know, massa, Bugs Bunny was nothing but Br’er Rabbit with a better agent.” Sometimes it feels like Beatty wrote a novel because he couldn’t fit all his material into bad standup routine. But when Beatty’s humor wears thin, his social satire shines through, and vice versa. His every utterance is like an extra credit question in a college exam about multiculturalism. Can he say that? Should he be allowed? Is there any chance he’s—god forbid—right?
The modest proposal at the heart of The Sellout is Bonbon’s conviction that we need to open up about racism; that mentioning race in a “post-racial” world should not be like shouting fire in a crowded theater; that blacks and other minorities are still suffering in this country not because we have failed to move beyond our systematic injustices, but because we are too eager to do so. We should call a spade a spade, if you will.
From the music clubs to the jailhouses to the fact that you can find Korean taco trucks only in white neighborhoods, L.A. is a mind-numbingly racially segregated city.
To Beatty’s credit as a purveyor of verbal pyrotechnics and seductive anti-logic, this notion of “full disclosure” for racism holds up surprisingly well throughout the novel.
Who was I kidding? I’m a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists. We separate the wheat from the chaff. […] [W]e segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, poor nigger a chance for equal access to the sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room the breathe.
But ultimately it breaks down, as it must.
I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it.
In a chilling moment, Hominy helpfully suggests that they give out badges and assign people to different “camps.”
Beneath the long arc of this modest proposal, Beatty makes time to thoroughly assail his true enemy: sanctimonious black intellectuals. As embodied by Foy Cheshire, a talentless and deeply conflicted academic who was Bonbon’s father’s best frenemy, these traitors receive the full brunt of Beatty’s devastating wit (e.g. the scene with Condoleezza Rice) in retaliation for their efforts to quantify, compartmentalize, and mansplain the problems of inner-city Los Angeles instead of actually changing them. At the donut shop where the best minds in Dickens gather to discuss community issues, Bonbon’s father fields questions about economic inequality.
One woman […] asked my father, “How much the Chinos make?”
“Well, Asian men earn more than any other demographic.”
“Even the faggots?” shouted the assistant manager. “You sure Asians make more than the faggots? ‘Cause I hear faggots be making cash hand over fist.”
“Yes, even the homosexuals, but remember, Asian men have no power.”
“And what about the gay Asian males? Have you done a regression analysis controlling for race and sexual orientation?”
Although its plot is a shambles and every member of its audience will find something to be offended about, The Sellout succeeds in presenting a vivid alternative to this type of collective dithering about America’s institutional racism. Bonbon is like the curator of a museum of racist stereotypes who goes crazy, tosses all his exhibits out on the sidewalk, and offers guided tours of the broken pieces. In Beatty’s fictional California town, every era of racism in American history lives on, eternally, in the present day. And isn’t that the America we live in, after all?
– Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and Founder of Fiction Advocate.