The Sellout by Paul Beatty
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|The Sellout by Paul Beatty|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: Something unusual: a winner of the Booker prize which is hilarious and profoundly unsettling as well as being a brilliant read. Highly recommended.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 304||Date: May 2016|
|Publisher: Oneworld Publications|
|External links: Author's website|
WINNER OF THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2016
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything.
Isn't that one of the great opening lines of literature?
Our black hero and narrator, surname Me, first name unknown, was born in the southern Los Angeles suburb of Dickens and subjected to an isolated upbringing dominated by his father's extreme views on race, supposedly the subject of a psychological memoir which will solve their financial problems, but cruel and unnatural to anyone with an ounce of humanity. To add insult to injury Me discovered after his father's death (a racially provoked shooting) that there was no memoir. A drive-by shooting produces nothing more substantial than a bill for a drive-through funeral, but it starts Me on the path which will end in the Supreme Court, the subject of a race trial: Me v the United States of America.
It began almost as a joke, or rather a suggestion from someone who was old and looked back with nostalgia to the days of slavery and segregation which somehow took hold. When the best school in Dickens was for blacks and the honky were excluded, it was the white students who made a point of demanding entry, at any cost. The sign on the bus that seats had to be given up for whites which was put up for a party, somehow stayed - and was appreciated. Me's 'crimes' mirror the landmark race cases - the holding of a slave and the resegregation of Dickens, a predominantly black and Latino suburb of Los Angeles. The fact that the 'slave' was there at his own request and seemed only to work for about fifteen minutes a day was irrelevant, as was the fact that re-segregation of the school improved its standards considerably.
Some books are easy to review: good books or ones you have problems with are strangely easy: what you want to say trips off the tongue. Mediocre books are hard: what is there that's worth saying? But the worst ones of all are the ones you know to be brilliant because you're burdened with the suspicion that you're never going to be able to do the book justice, that - somehow - you'll not be able to live up to what you've just read - and that's the problem with The Sellout. The plot - the Supreme Court case - is overwhelmed by the writing, but the writing is so good that you really won't care. It's full of wicked, sly humour and it's this that keeps the story moving forward.
Some of the characters are implausibly clever, but I didn't care: I loved picking up the references but was conscious that I was missing many more. It's a book you feel brighter, cleverer for reading, but much as you might laugh you'll have some very disturbing thoughts about race. It's satire, but it's subversive too, with harmful racial assumptions turned to the glare of the spotlight.
I read this book because it had won the Booker Prize in 2016. I'll confess that I didn't approach it with joy in my heart: so often the winners of the major literary prizes are very worthy, wonderfully written, clever - and difficult to read. At the end you feel virtuous and perhaps more pleased that you have read the book than you were when doing so. That's not the case with The Sellout. It was a wonderful, uplifting read and I enjoyed every moment of it and wished that it had gone on for longer.
You'll find a list of previous Booker Prize winners here.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty is in the Top Ten Literary Fiction Books of 2016.
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