The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015) Picador (2016) 291 pp
The last few pages of this novel feature a comedian at an open-mic night telling a joke which the narrator describes as the funniest he had ever heard up to that point. “Yo Mama been on welfare so long,” it goes, “her face is on the food stamp.” Had this vital insight into the quality of humor to which we are subjected here featured amongst the first few pages instead, this reader would have very contentedly tossed the thing into the bin and thought no more about it. As it is, it provides the last straw after 280 pages of ham-fisted, overwrought, self-indulgent, obvious, cheap and unamusing jokes. The torpor inflicted by mile after mile of smart-arsed rambling excess, pointless swearing and compulsive digression calls desperately for a robust and exacting editor. No amount of attributes, and there are some to be found (other reviewers will tell you all about them as if the flaws don’t exist), can possibly survive what is effectively a polemical stand-up set masquerading as a novel. Seldom is an opportunity missed to give too much of what we don’t want, nor to rob us of what we do.
We begin on the steps outside the Supreme Court, where our narrator, the simply named Me, lights up a joint whilst he awaits progress in his trial, accused as he is of violating the constitution by re-segregating his neighborhood school and other public amenities as well as keeping a former actor as an albeit voluntary slave. The novel goes on to end here too, but most of what is in-between occurs in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a suburb of southern Los Angeles in which Me is raised by his father, a sociologist named F.K. Me (geddit??!!) who side-lines as the neighborhood’s “nigger whisperer,” to be deployed to rescue young black men who are laid down on railway tracks or about to hurl themselves off bridges. Me is subjected to a range of domestic childhood behavioral experiments, such as being forced to live left-handed and having B.A. Baracus style jewelry put round his neck and pockets stuffed full of money before being driven into the city where his father mugs him in order to see how long it is until a white person assists. After F.K. Me is shot dead by police (“just because racism is dead don’t mean they don’t still shoot niggers on sight.”), Me is awarded $2 million and begins to grow exotic fruit. The love interest is a bus driver called Marissa. Me is bad at sex, in fact he “fucks like an overturned guppy,” apparently, but as this aspect of his character doesn’t amuse or inform — it is merely mentioned a couple of times — it is unclear what relevance this has. The former actor Hominy, who was noted for always playing highly stereotypical black roles designed for white people to laugh at, volunteers to be his slave, and together they segregate the local school in pursuit of re-establishing the issue of race in “post-racial America” because “racism takes them back. Makes them humble. Makes them realize how far we’ve come. And how far we have to go.” That’s the plot, and in the era of Baltimore, Trayvon Martin, seemingly weekly episodes of white police officers shooting black people without decent reason, and Black Lives Matter, the novel’s grander ambitions with respect to racism in Obama’s America are pretty plain too and require no further adumbration from me.
With Race and America, America and Race, a subject which will never lose its appeal to literature, it is less that The Sellout‘s themes are unsatisfactory, irrelevant, or uninteresting, nor that the characters are unconvincing, nor the geographical setting inadequately explored. The problem is what a colossal failure its jokes are. They are not designed to be subtle, but rather to hit you like a bus. This makes them worse. The occasional brief portion threatens something approaching amusing and provides the best insight into what lacks elsewhere. For instance, F.K. Me is a stalwart of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, one of whose members, Foy Cheshire, is on his own quixotic crusade to rewrite masterpieces which he considers racist, to include re-naming Huckleberry Finn “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journey of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go In Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.” In recent view of Rachel Dolezal, the black activist who (in an unintentionally brilliant invocation of Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain) turned out to be white, safe spaces, cultural appropriation and trigger warnings — not forgetting the Washington official who was suspended a few years ago for using the word “niggardly” in a budget memo — there is mileage here, but to draw the most humor from it would require Beatty to present comment via means of plot and character rather than launching extraneous rants. When he refers, quite amusingly, to “a small sub-Saharan African nation such as Detroit,” the humor is woven into a larger theme, it is snuck in from out of sight rather than his usual method of hitting weary readers in the face with a cricket bat. There wasn’t time to mark them all in pencil, but even the most cursory thumb though the book sadly provides a multitude of examples of the cricket bat variation. For example:
Hominy is no source of pride: He’s a Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African-American legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Dave Chapelle’s meltdown and people who say “Valentime’s Day.”
About a quarter of the book is like this. I suppose people who like this sort of thing might like this sort of thing, but note how one simile is never enough. Beatty’s delusion is that four bad ones amount to a good one. Conversely, take a humorist like Clive James, who has expertly deployed similes for decades: an unpronounceable foreign colleague’s name sounds like “a fly trapped against a window”; Arnold Schwarznegger’s arms are like “brown condoms filled with walnuts”; a fat guy in a black gown at university is “like a piece of fruit going to a funeral.” I offer these examples of similes which do work due to their subtlety, calmness of tone, precision of delivery, and self-evident contrast with Beatty’s cricket bat.
Not that similes are the only way to be funny. Set-pieces are useful too. Take John Self’s tennis match in Martin Amis’s Money, or Lowell Lake’s hapless attempt to pay a bribe to a New York court in L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life (these examples called from direct memory because they are, you know, funny). Sadly, the set-piece with the greatest potential in The Sellout also falls victim to Beatty’s poor focus. Me tells his father that he doesn’t really think there is racism in American any more. He is bundled into the car and driven for three days to Mississippi, where father and son spend some time provocatively wolf-whistling at white women, an act, incidentally, not far from being as indecent as the racism they are hoping to provoke. Just as some white guys outside a bar sit “open-legged and open-mouthed, aghast at the sheer fucking nigger audacity” and things could just become amusing, we instead get a crass digression about the girl’s “B-cup breasts . . . the Hindenburg and the Goodyear blimp, respectively.” Really, who does Beatty think might be amused by this puerility? Then we inexplicably get a joke which starts, “Bubba the redneck, a nigger and a Mexican are sitting at the same bus stop when BAM!, a genie appears . . .” Its punchline, something or other about a bottle of Coke, is every bit as unamusing as the opening suggests, and the set-piece is destroyed, ground into dust by Beatty’s severe lack of deftness, subtlety, dexterity, or appreciation of his own limits.
What a saddening novel. Also jarring are that alongside the jivey street-talk and never-ending use of the word “nigger” and variations of “fuck” are references to Kafka, Jean-Luc Goddard, “the nacre interior of an abalone shell,” antebellum vellum, and phrases from obscure Japanese and Greek folklore. They don’t belong in the same novel, and the cynic concludes they are only included so that The Sellout may live on in sociology seminars at progressive universities.
Sadder still is that it is plain that Beatty has much of value to say about modern day racial politics in America. At times the target of his ire are certain categories of black, redolent rather of Chris Rock’s routine about “the difference between black people and niggers.” Hence his even-handedness is evident; no-one will accuse him of taking an anti-white view particularly, or of failing to see how black communities might have contributed to some of their own difficulties. But this novel is the worst possible delivery system for anything of substance. Beatty is, I read, soon to edit a collection of historical essays drawn from the media and literature which will chart how white authors have written about black people. Presumably he will be able to select, arrange, and introduce these pieces as he chooses. It sounds an interesting and worthwhile project and will benefit from there being clear delineation between when we are getting the essays and when we are getting Beatty. This distinction between novel and rant is absent in The Sellout.
Edmund Wilson said that a novel could survive anything but a failure to live. Had he been alive to read The Sellout, he might have added that a comic novel or “Swiftian satire of the highest proportion,” according to one, I presume hallucinating, reviewer, cannot survive such an abject failure to amuse. The groupthink of reviewers who couldn’t wait to gush over this novel is quite bewildering. I should like to point them to Howard Jacobson’s observation that “we like to think of laughter as liberating, but it is just as much an expression of copycat submissiveness.” The main benefit to this reviewer from this perplexing experience was insight into the interesting question of why the United States seems to do such a poor job of producing literary humor, or why the best American comic writers, like Peter de Vries or Charles Portis, are practically unheard of. It is because critics find things like The Sellout funny.