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You had me at: Paul Beatty's 'The Sellout'

January 26, 2016

Part of an ongoing column about the sentences and paragraphs that force a reader onward:


When not shoveling snow the last few days, I plowed through much of Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) as it turned away from what was the Bob Marley moment in Jamaica to the void left by his death and the drug trade that filled it. Of course, James’ novel is much more complicated than that reduction I just offered and is not brief, but a novel exhausting in both its focus and scope. So not knowing what to read in the wake of a truly large book, I picked up Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (2015) yesterday.


While A Brief History of Seven Killings is at times humorous, Beatty’s novel oozes satirical laughter and subversive irony in every sentence. This paragraph, lifted from the book’s second page, smacked me in the head like a basketball, or a snowball:

Washington, D.C., with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms). Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shod Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest Los Angeles jungles, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-jeaned yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks. I stared in awe at the Lincoln Memorial. If Honest Abe had come to life and somehow managed to lift his bony twenty-three-foot, four-inch frame from his throne, what would he say? What would he do? Would he break-dance? Would he pitch pennies against the curbside? Would he read the paper and see that the Union he saved was now a dysfunctional plutocracy, that the people he freed were now slaves to rhythm, rap and predatory lending, and that today his skill set would be better suited to the basketball court than the White House? There he could catch the rock on the break, pull up for a bearded three-pointer, hold the pose, and talk shit as the ball popped the net. The Great Emancipator, you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him. (4)

I haven’t read any of Beatty’s previous novels (Slumberland, Tuff, and The White Boy Shuffle), but The Sellout’s comical strengths inhale and exhale in the voice of its narrator, who before the Supreme Court argues: “And when I did what I did, I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it” (23).



This African-American narrator, after years of his father’s sociological experiments, is arguing not against but for slavery. Moreover, he appears—so far—to be a warped caricature of those conservative individuals on the Court who rather recently rendered the Voting Rights Act impotent.

 I can’t say much more; I’m only fifty pages into the novel. Yet, I feel at home in it. Traces of Ralph Ellison, Percival Everett, and Kurt Vonnegut’s absurd tastes whisper in every rant and tangent. And, by the time I finish The Sellout, perhaps those glaring white snowbanks may have melted or at least transformed into transparent slush. 

Bryan Harvey tweets @LawnChairBoys.

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