Paul Beatty has become the first American writer to win the Man Booker Prize. At the glittering ceremony, Beatty remarked, with characteristic irony, “I hate writing.” Fortunately, that didn’t stop him from completing his prize-winning novel The Sellout, a strange, shocking, occasionally sublime book that tosses aside the blanket over America’s cornfields, uncovering a past — and present — that’s unmistakeably American, yet utterly surreal.
Beatty’s satire revolves around Me, resident of a California “agrarian ghetto” called (in a delicious writer’s tribute) Dickens. Trying to calm raging racism in Dickens, Me tries to revive slavery, then segregation, starting with separated seating on a bus, aiming to restore social order and peace. His experiment yields darkly bitter fruit, but not all of America applauds and Me is hauled up before the Supreme Court. As he muses over his trial, a strange inversion of the enthralling O.J. Simpson event, the story assumes a typically American voice — highly comic, deeply disturbed, lonely, violent, greedy and wistful, full of longings and lynchings, “accidental” killings, psychological experiments, technological discoveries, sex, soul, hash and gunshots on an American road trip.
Its wrestling with race — and its laughing and weeping over it — makes The Sellout hotly contemporary, coming amidst America’s race violence, racist political vitriol and campaigns that — despite the Civil Rights Movement, despite multiple African-American idols (whom Beatty himself joins), despite a stunning legacy of broken and patched-up life — must again state, Black Lives Matter. Perhaps they really don’t, Beatty muses with provocative brilliance, describing “the wretched of the earth” as “people too poor to afford cable and too stupid to know that they aren’t missing anything”. Writing with irony in a post-ironic age, where the surreal has come to life all around us, Beatty’s book pulls off that dazzling literary trick — blending power with poignance, past with present, politics with personalities, and the tale of an aeon with the story of you and Me. The Sellout had to win out.