Book Review


A humorous look at race in multicultural contemporary America

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Publisher: Oneworld.

Genre: Fiction

Extent: 288pp

Price: £8.99

Winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize, The Sellout by Paul Beatty has been called ‘a novel of our times’ by the judges. According to Amanda Foreman, chair of the jury, Paul Beatty ‘slays sacred cows with abandon and takes aim at racial and political taboos with verve and a snarl’. This, in effect, is a window through which one can just about begin to understand what this novel is all about. Though a work of ‘fiction’, it lends itself to much more than simple story telling. Woven into the story of Bonbon and his ‘slave’ Hominy Jenkins, is a visceral, yet humour-laden, look at the politics of race and belonging in the multicultural whirlpool that is the United States of America.

The first line of the novel tears up any notions we may have of a racially evolved progressive nation: ‘This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.’ By page five the author has thrown us into the cauldron of racial consciousness from which there is no escape:

Then she became disconsolate, crying and apologizing for having spoken her mind and my having been born. “Some of my best friends are monkeys,” she said accidentally...This whole city’s a Freudian slip of the tongue, a concrete hard-on for America’s deeds and misdeeds.

The narrator is an African-American, living in Dickens, a small agrarian fictional town on the outskirts of Los Angeles. We are introduced to Bonbon in a haze of marijuana-driven trial as the accused in a case of attempted introduction of slavery and racial segregation in his town. The complete and utter paradox of a weed-smoking man in the highest court in the country overturns all the propriety and rationality one expects in the normal course of things. And, the absurdity just carries on from beginning to end in a very complex construction of time, space and relationships. In the process of trying to decode the exact crime of which Bonbon is accused – for who can conceive of reintroducing slavery and segregation in modern day America – the reader is taken on a wild rollercoaster ride of incomplete problematic relationships of Bonbon with his father, his girlfriend, his community, his township and the whole question of identity. In a post racial, multicultural world, Bonbon – and his ‘willing’ slave Hominy Jenkins – is asking the existential question ‘Who are we, really? What exactly is “our thing”?’:

So what is blackness, your honor? That’s a good question. The exact same one the immortal French author Jean Genet posed after being asked by an actor to write a play featuring an all black cast, when he mused not only “What exactly is a black?” but added the even more fundamental inquiry, “First of all, what is his color?”  

Bonbon, with the wildly improbable surname Me, is living with his father, a social anthropologist who practises his experiments on his own son, in the weirdly multicultural township of Dickens. Living with them is Hominy Jenkins, a vestigial leftover of the pre-Civil Rights era, echoing a time of slavery, segregation and ‘‘Massa’’-hood. While there are hints of a structured living – going to school, finishing college – what is fore-grounded is an oddly surrealistic sense of life – the existence of the Dum Dum Intellectuals group, the psychosocial experiments done by the father on his son, and so on. ‘I was his Anna Freud’ says Bonbon, ‘and his only control group’. He grows up in this strange and oddly thrilling childhood and becomes a farmer of sorts.

With the death of his father, Bonbon has to take on the responsibility of the eccentric Hominy whose identity is tied up with his ‘slave-hood’ and his role as a performing ‘black’ artist in the early silent era Hollywood movies. This odd association is the single most lasting relationship for Bonbon. It is to keep Hominy alive that Bonbon accedes to the weird idea of making him his slave and, by extension, the social experiment of defining the town of Dickens by racial segregation.

The consequences of this act ultimately land him in the Supreme Court in case number ‘09-2606, Me vs The United States of America’.

 Bonbon is an oddly self contradictory character who acts with no apparent logic and has fun doing it anyway. At the heart of his actions is an honesty which cuts through the false rationalisations of society and a sympathy which makes him carry on despite landing him in ‘the wrong lane’. One of the most interesting examples of this is his birthday party for Hominy which is celebrated in a bus driven by his former girlfriend, and which is converted into a copy of the Freedom Bus of Rosa Parks. This mad celebration, complete with segregated seats and ‘white only’ signs, is Bonbon’s way of keeping Hominy happy so he doesn’t commit suicide.

The book is not an easy read. The narrative has twists and turns, wandering laterally and obliquely into reflections, characters and incidents which then have to be pieced together. Every page is full of literary allusions, and historical allusions which need to be referenced in the context of the history of Black America. For example, the film Little Rascals is referenced all the time as Hominy’s great achievement for which a battle is fought between two parties and which is the one thing that he feels is his identity. There are no footnotes to explain that this was a series of short comedy films, produced by Hal Roach in the period between 1922-44, showcasing a group of poor neighbourhood children – black as well as white – and their adventures. The marijuana induced haze almost becomes a metaphor for the way in which life is seen through its characters eyes: dark, funny and profane, and yet ferociously intelligent. As Sarah Silverman says, it is ‘like demented angels wrote it’, but in the end, it is a positive and oddly sympathetic book.

Beatty’s style in The Sellout has been compared to Swiftian satire. That derisive laughter, the incongruity and eccentricity of a world gone mad with its systems and beliefs is definitely in the best tradition of Swift but also Dryden and Alexander Pope. There are no solutions in the end, just survival in the full knowledge that being black means ‘laughing to keep from crying – in an America insisting that it’s moved on from your trauma’. (Elizabeth Donnelly in The Guardian).

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Devalina Kohli taught English at Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University, for 21 years before taking premature retirement. She has worked with a number of NGOs and has edited a number of art books.She freelances now with Macmillan Education for their teacher training workshops.