Paul Beatty’s latest novel, The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $26), recounts the ordeals of a man who tries — and fails — to live up to his father’s, his community’s, and his country’s ideas of what it means to be black in America. But our narrator, nicknamed Sellout, does more than just fail: He threatens, as a certain saying goes, to set the race back 500 years, by landing himself a date before the US Supreme Court for owning a slave named Hominy (who refuses to work) and attempting to reinstate segregation in the deincorporated pastoral ghetto of Dickens in the greater Los Angeles area.
Beatty is smarter than most comic writers, and fearless: The Sellout at times seems to be based on a lost Dave Chappelle skit. Yet one fears that Beatty will be relegated to the Literary Negro League of comic novelists, with George Schuyler first up to bat and, awaiting their turn, Fran Ross, Cecil Brown, Ishmael Reed, William Melvin Kelley, and the recent call-ups Percival Everett and Mat Johnson. These writers find themselves in a perpetual search of an audience — not because of a lack of talent, but for the inexplicable reason that readers seem unwilling to have a “conversation” or “more dialogue” about race unless it is entirely sober, mostly cant, and, to judge by the state of things, perennially superficial. That’s unfortunate, because the novel has always been a good vehicle for dissecting the rhetorical essentialisms and mental shortcuts we live by.
The Sellout sets off at a ferocious pace and can’t let up after that. Beatty’s ambition is thrilling, but eventually the humor strains to keep the plot steamrolling along. One reason is that despite finding fresh angles to satirize, Beatty dulls them by resorting to familiar scripts, such as an O.J. Simpson joke that is inevitable rather than fortuitous. Still, this flaw only points to the ways in which racist tropes and habits of thought are so deeply embedded in the culture, like a lawn jockey grinning in a pristine driveway, that we often glide by them without even noticing.
The Sellout owes a good deal of its brio to withering, painfully acute jibes at black middle-class sensibilities, foibles, and fantasies, in a manner that recalls Philip Roth’s no-holds-barred take on Jewish Weequahic in Portnoy’s Complaint. Beatty has plowed some of this material before, notably in his 1996 debut The White Boy Shuffle, a bildungsroman whose protagonist, Gunnar Kaufman, also played on the trope of an out-of-step blackness (or lack thereof). Gunnar seemed to materialize from a kind of late-’90s alternative funk and is kin to Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks hero Huey Freeman.
One of Beatty’s sharpest caricatures in The Sellout is the “Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals,” a collection of “star-struck, middle-class black out-of-towners and academics” who reunite in a doughnut shop, the last safe space in Dickens. Their leader, Foy Cheshire, the villain of the novel and the foil to its seemingly retrogressive narrator, is nearly as obsessed with the politics of respectability as with his own wealth and self-aggrandizement. He has created a “politically respectful edition of Huckleberry Finn,” forces the Dum Dums to use his “EmpowerPoint, a slide presentation ‘African-American software’ package” with font names like “Timbuktu, Harlem Renaissance, and Pittsburgh Courier,” and is rumored to be mobilizing his immense wealth to buy the rights to the Hal Roach series Our Gang in an attempt to hide its most racist episodes. It’s Cheshire who coins the narrator’s nickname. But Beatty is just as unsparing of the truly powerful. That would include certain well-known “Negro diplomats” who are made to do Crip Walks, and Washington, DC, a city that has “absolutely no skyline, save for the Washington Monument touching the night sky like a giant middle finger to the world.”
Yet even as it shreds through the sentimental, The Sellout is more mature and affecting than Beatty’s previous novels. In its last pages, it becomes something more than the sum of its searing satirical indictments of contemporary mores, racial and otherwise. Ducking and weaving under the pummel of Don Rickles punch lines, one discovers, among other things, a loving portrait of a father and son, and their reconciliation of sorts; a love letter to the city of Los Angeles; indelible portraits of the Supreme Court justices; purple-hazed Pynchonesque set pieces, including something of an ode to the Pacific Coast Highway; notes toward a semi-serious theory of “unmitigated blackness,” matched with a profound criticism of same; and finally, a resounding refusal of all self-satisfied definitions and patented claims on the concept of race and proper racial belonging.
One scrap of wisdom bequeathed to Sellout by his father is a favorite saying: “People eat the shit you shovel them.” It could be the leitmotif, the motto hanging proudly over this novel, like Dante’s inscription over the gates of hell. America is full of it. Doesn’t it deserve this savage satire? And who better than the novelist — unbeholden to anyone’s pieties, liberated from all accountability — to deliver that blast of unrepentant, ungrateful, and irreverent free speech? A good laugh won’t solve racial injustice in America. It may also offend others and enrage even more. It may not even be fair. But as The Sellout shows, there’s something in good satire that always delivers the stab of reality; and in the hands of this talented novelist, a dismal patch of West Los Angeles proves to be as fertile a ground for great fiction as any corner of the universe.