Dec 18, 2016

A Sellout at Jack's

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Dinner and Acknowledgments
We met last Wednesday at Jack's and learned that Jack had spent the day on a project in Sacramento and had hurried back for our meal.  If he had any concern about feeding a small army, he didn't show it. He must have prepared everything the day before, pressed his wife into service, or lied about his work itinerary.  Regardless, when it came time to take our places, we were treated to quintessential American comfort food.  A hearty beef stew, plenty of winter vegetables, a mixed salad, and a fruit dessert that was more healthy than it needed to be.  (Thank goodness for the box of See's Candies that materialized next to the fruit.) Kudos, Jack, for turning out a fine meal under pressure.

Our Review and Discussion of The Sellout

Approaching our meeting, I queried whether Paul Beatty's profane satire about race in America allowed our group of mostly white men to adopt the idiom of Beatty's characters and use the N-word during our discussion of the book.  The quick response from our host:  No.  While we never felt muzzled, this forced awareness of the language of race is one of many subjects Beatty happily skewers in his award-winning roman a clef.  (More on that below.)

Beatty's novel begins and ends with the narrator's appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend his participation in a master-slave relationship (he's the master, albeit unwillingly, of Hominy Jenkins, the last Little Rascal) and his initiative to segregate the local high school by excluding whites and Latinos.  Between those appearances, Beatty's narrator explains his unconventional outlook on race by sharing the details of a zany childhood tormented by a psychologist father whose best experiments were always about race and always on his son. About his tortured upbringing, he says:

Talk about starting life off with a handicap.  Fuck being black.  Try learning to crawl, ride a tricycle, cover both eyes while playing peek-a-boo, and constructing a meaningful theory of mind, all with one hand.

While race stands at the center of his novel, Beatty exposes innumerable cultural stereotypes to comedic effect, even if his range is exhausting and at times impenetrable.  On one randomly selected page, he references Pantone 342, the Sistine Chapel, Banksy, The Thomas Guide, Sacagawea, Surenos, KLON, The Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, and Fruit Town. Jack summed up our feelings when he declared that he wasn't sure if he got it all. (Terry gave up and said he didn't miss what he didn't understand.) All of which made us wonder how those Man Booker Prize judges in England were able to sift through Beatty's rapid-fire assault on American popular culture and decide it was worth an award.

Since we weren't sure if we were in on the joke or the butt of it (as George noted, the white couple gets chased out of the black comedy club on the novel's last page), we grew more critical as we went around the table.  Larry panned the story as episodic and unlikely to stand the test of time.  Dan agreed and likened the novel to a series of Seinfeld episodes, i.e., all about nothing. Tom and Dean found it funny at times, but not necessarily enjoyable.

Rating The Sellout

A roman a clef is a story whose fictional characters are disguised figures from real life.  The key ("clef") to which characters represent which real people is the reader's challenge.  In The Sellout, Beatty renders certain prominent blacks in cryptic fashion.  His "negro diplomat" is "C _ _ _ n  _ _w _ _ _"; a "noted TV family man" is "_ i _ _   _ _ _b _."  These characters weren't hard to decipher (Powell and Cosby).  Since we couldn't say the same for other characters and cultural references, we were hard pressed to give Beatty better than a _.8.

Next Up:  Ski Weekend and (optionally) A Nation of Sheep by William Lederer

In January, we head to the Sierras for a weekend of skiing.  We didn't select a book.  Instead, George urged us to find a copy of Lederer's 1961 title, A Nation of Sheep  (Lederer co-wrote The Ugly American), and reflect on its commentary about individual liberty falling victim to the media and big government.

3 comments:

Jack said...

I found this book mostly hilarious. Sometimes it was hard to distinguish between biting social commentary on race and plain old scathing satirical comedy. I was somewhat surprised by the somewhat negative ratings by several members (gee, how could this group not relate to this story?). One thing I'll say, the book really turned me on to looking for fresh satsumas in the produce section! Overall, The Sellout does seem like an odd choice for Man Booker Prize winner given the style, subject matter, and comparison to past MB winners. But I enjoyed the book; it made me laugh out loud many time (almost with guilty, Archie Bunker-like pleasure). It's really hard to laugh these days, so thank's Paul!

George said...

Paul Beatty clearly knows how to write. The question is, can the readers decipher what he has written? This book will probably end up on college shelves with copious notes for the students. While the book did bang back and forth as it went forward, there are enough entertaining tidbits to make it worth reading.

andrew said...

I agree with you both. I left out of my summary a couple of footnotes from our discussion. First, someone mentioned The Sellout was the first Booker Prize winner from the United States (since the committee liberalized its rules about Commonwealth writers only). That makes its selection all the more interesting as--to Jack's point--Beatty's inflammatory style is the furthest thing from English introspection one can imagine.

Another thing we discussed was Beatty's infatuation with Hominy Jenkins and The Little Rascals. To me, the whole subject seemed out of place/out of time, but perhaps it was Beatty's way to get Hollywood under the bus alongside Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, and Condoleeza Rice.

While most of us thought the novel was (mostly) funny, I don't recall that anyone was willing to give it an unqualified thumbs-up. Beatty may have a terrific grasp of black/white American history and pop culture, but it doesn't quite come together if the reader's head is still spinning at the end. For sure, though, he did get us talking and talking....