“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I have never stolen anything,” is the first line of Paul Beatty’s novel, The Sellout.
This captivating introduction is the first indication not just that the narrator has a fun matter-of-fact voice but also that the story is specific to the American experience.
The novel is a bizarre but thought-provoking story about a black man on trial for enslaving another black man.
Although the book begins in Washington DC, the bulk of it is set in a temporarily extinct town called Dickens which is struggling with poor education, poor health, poor nutrition, poorly paying jobs among other problems.
Dickens becomes lovable to the reader in the same way one grows fond of the underdog in a movie. It is a testament to the author’s ability to make us care about the characters, including the sort-of-extinct town.
I read novels until page 50, and then hope that the momentum will carry me through to the last page. For me, The Sellout needed a longer jumpstart than that, and because of that it was a slow read.
In part, I felt the narrator (like the author) was a genius and so it was difficult to fully follow the intricately-woven anti racist satire. In part, and perhaps related, it was the specificity of the American condition that felt out of reach to me, so that smart quips about Los Angeles for instance, were lost on me.
I was happy then when the narrator seemed to loosen up in the later pages and it brought colour to the pages. Paul Beatty is humorous in the way that your genius friend who is blunt is- making peculiar associations that are sobering but also quite hilarious.
“My father had a theory that poor people are the best drivers because they can’t afford to carry car insurance and have to drive like they live, defensively,” he says.
In another section, he says, “The formulaic repetitiveness of filing and stuffing envelopes appeals to me in some fundamental life-affirming way. I would’ve made a good factory worker, supply-room clerk, or Hollywood scriptwriter.”
The book covers a lot of difficult themes, with the author laying bare the ways in which black people continue to suffer even after desegregation, and thus I am grateful for his humour. It is a rich book and someone analysing it might benefit from a second or third read and still continue to enjoy it.