The Sellout

The internet makes it all too easy to go hunting for the information that will make sense of a book or an author, and I am resolved not to do that. At least, not till I have finished this review. From that position of self-imposed ignorance, The Sellout is a brilliantly funny and cutting satire on race in America. Nothing is safe, noone immune, no taboo out of bounds. Sex, music, drugs, intellectualism, passivity, crime. ...

What are you rebelling against?

Whadda you got?

At one level, then, I loved The Sellout for its energy, abrasive wit and the sheer joy of reading sentence after sentence that covers half a page or more and takes no prisoners. At another, though, it is very weird indeed.

A mostly black, mostly agricultural city, loses its identity by being subsumed within the city of Los Angeles. And the sellout in question, the narrator, hatches a scheme to resurrect the city and, in so doing, to resurrect the residents' pride. The scheme is to reintroduce segregation and even, to some extent, slavery. The thing that made it such entertaining reading, quite apart from the muscularity of the prose, is that it says all these unsayable things. And then comes the guilt.

Should I be laughing?
Well sure, that's what the author intended, plain as day.
Yes, OK. But I suppose I ought to also be thinking more deeply about some of the issues raised.
If you must. But hey, it's only a book.

All of which is why I honestly have not looked up anything at all about Paul Beattie. I'm just going to assume, for now, that he's allowed to say the things he does because of who he is. And if he isn't who (or what) I'm blithely assuming he is, then what? Could someone else have done the same?

There's one passage in the book that sums it all up: This one:

After two hours of sitting in the dark laughing at unmitigated racism, in the brightness the guilt sets in. Everyone can see your face, and you feel like your mother caught you masturbating.

Which is precisely how it feels reading The Sellout. Hilarity and mirth, followed by hyperconscious self-doubt. I thought of Nigella Lawson's take on what less aware people call guilty pleasures:

If you're feeling guilty, it isn't a pleasure.

And I resolved to just continue having a good time, at least until I needed glasses.

And finally, having done the research I stopped myself from doing at the start, I know that Paul Beatty is someone I will want to read more of in future.

As a footnote, I really want to understand the role of agriculture in the lives of Paul Beatty and his creation. The Sellout grows the most amazing stuff; weed, fruit, vegetables all of which can work miracles. The follow-up has to be a how-to for the urban farmer.

Highlight - Three > Page 43 · Location 708
Now, if I had my druthers, I couldn’t care less about being black. To this day, when the census form arrives in the mail, under the “RACE” question I check the box marked “Some other race” and proudly write in “Californian.” Of course, two months later, a census worker shows up at my door, takes one look at me, and says, “You foul nigger. As a black man, what do you have to say for yourself?”
Highlight - Three > Page 52 · Location 841
[B]ut as luck would have it, given my father’s wrongful death at the hands of the police, and the $2 million settlement I’d later received, in a sense he and I bought the farm on the same day.
Highlight - Seven > Page 96 · Location 1445
He and the rest of the non-Dickensian flock belonged to that scary subset of black lycanthropic thinkers I like to refer to as “wereniggers.” By day, wereniggers are erudite and urbane, but with every lunar cycle, fiscal quarter, and tenure review their hackles rise, and they slip into their floor-length fur coats and mink stoles, grow fangs, and schlep down from their ivory towers and corporate boardrooms to prowl the inner cities, so that they can howl at the full moon over drinks and mediocre blues music. Now that his fame, if not his fortune, has waned, werenigger Foy Cheshire’s foggy ghetto moor of choice is Dickens. Normally I try to avoid wereniggers at all costs.
Highlight - Eight > Page 110 · Location 1637
When the grass, what little of it there was, sure in the fuck wasn’t any greener.
Highlight - Ten > Page 132 · Location 1937
[I]t’s “survival of the witless,” and we’re the black moths in that classic evolution photo, clinging to the dark, soot-covered tree, invisible to our predators and yet somehow still vulnerable. The job of the swarthy moth is to keep the white moth occupied. Glued to the tree with bad poetry, jazz, and corny stand-up routines about the difference between white moths and black moths. “Why do white moths always be flying toward lights, slamming into screen doors, and shit? You never see black moths do that. Stupid fluttering motherfuckers.” Anything to keep the white moth next to us and thereby reducing our chances of being targets for birds of prey, the volunteer army, or Cirque de Soleil.
Highlight - Ten > Page 136 · Location 1999
If New York is the City That Never Sleeps, then Los Angeles is the City That’s Always Passed Out on the Couch.
Highlight - City Lites: An Interlude > Page 149 · Location 2197 My note
War-torn and evacuated towns like Oradour-sur-Vayres in France, Paoua and Goroumo in the Central African Republic, all made strong pushes for civic sisterhood. So soon after reading Ian Rankin's Hanging Garden the reference to Oradour brought me up short.
Highlight - Eleven > Page 165 · Location 2414
And although 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, I understood the gist of the message.
Highlight - Eleven > Page 166 · Location 2438
“Juggling is gay!” “Calling people who call you ‘gay’ just because you called them ‘gay’ is gay!” “Okay, that’s enough.” Charisma scolded. “My God, is there anything you kids don’t think is gay?” The fat boy thought for a long moment. “You know what’s not gay . . . being gay.” Laughing through her tears, Charisma ...
Highlight - Thirteen > Page 178 · Location 2615
The fellows at the gas station were still playing chess, the attendant’s cursor hovering hesitatingly over a cornered piece as if his next decision decided the fate of the world. The attendant slammed a knight onto a square. “You ain’t fooling nobody with that Sicilian gambit chicanery. Your diagonals is vulnerable as shit.”
Highlight - Seventeen > Page 204 · Location 2938 My note
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. And that I guess is the crux of the matter.
Highlight - Eighteen > Page 213 · Location 3070 My note
Zocalo, Cmon. this may be an in joke too far. But if it is, how much more am I missing?
Highlight - Eighteen > Page 214 · Location 3082
I’m a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists. We separate the wheat from the chaff. I’m not Rudolf Hess, P. W. Botha, Capitol Records, or present-day U.S. of A. Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold on to power. I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.
Highlight - Twenty-one > Page 237 · Location 3417 My note
“I just want you to know I’m fucking Bonbon.” Oblivious to the thorns, Panache stuck what remained of the pineapple, skin and all, into his mouth, slurping and sucking out every last drop of juice. When the fruit was dry as a desert bone, he walked up to me, tapped my chest with the tip of Lulu Belle’s barrel, and said, “Shit, if I could get some of this pineapple every morning, I’d fuck the nigger, too.” I'm hoping the sequel is a how-to breeding and gardening guide.
Highlight - Twenty-two > Page 242 · Location 3494 My note
After two hours of sitting in the dark laughing at unmitigated racism, in the brightness the guilt sets in. Everyone can see your face, and you feel like your mother caught you masturbating. Which is precisely how it feels. cf Nigella's guilty pleasures: "If you're feeling guilty, it isn't a pleasure".
Highlight - Twenty-three > Page 251 · Location 3624
A long time ago, my father taught me that whenever you see a question on the cover of a news magazine, the answer is always “No,” because the editorial staff knows that questions with “Yes” answers would, like graphic cigarette warnings and close-ups of pus-oozing genitalia that tend not to deter but encourage smoking and unsafe sex, scare the reader off.
Note - Twenty-three > Page 251 · Location 3627
The extra matters.
Highlight - Twenty-three > Page 254 · Location 3664
If he was indeed an “autodidact,” there’s no doubt he had the world’s shittiest teacher.
Highlight - Twenty-three > Page 257 · Location 3720
Most folks think “We Shall Overcome” is still in the public domain. That through the generosity of the black struggle, its empowering refrains are free to be sung by anyone anytime one feels the stings of injustice and betrayal, which is how it should be. But if you stood outside the U.S. Copyright Office and protested people profiting from a stolen song by singing “We Shall Overcome,” you’d owe the estate of Pete Seeger a nickel for every rendition.
Highlight - Twenty-four > Page 270 · Location 3893
Because the Supreme Court is where the country takes out its dick and tits and decides who’s going to get fucked and who’s getting a taste of mother’s milk.
Highlight - Twenty-four > Page 274 · Location 3945 My note
hikikomori A nice word. but is it more than an antiisocial loner?

My review on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon