Sparrow reviews Paul Beatty's "The Sellout"

The Sellout by Paul Beatty (written by Sparrow)

This is the funniest book ever written about slavery.


The narrator, a guy named Me, is a species of black superhero, growing abnormally sweet watermelons and power-packed marijuana on his small farm in Dickens, an urban ghetto just past the border of LA. Also, Me’sa surfer! His actual superpower – which he inherited from his father – is “nigger whispering,” the ability toconvince a suicidal African-American mother of two to step back from the ledge and choose life. (His secret weapon: excellent weed.)

The Sellout has a great beginning, or rather “Prologue.” Our hero sits in the United States Supreme Court, awaiting sentencing. His crime? Slaveholding! (Plus a second conviction for segregating schools.) But it’s not really his fault. His friend Hominy Jenkins, “the last surviving member of the Little Rascals, that madcap posse of street urchins who, from the roaring Twenties until the Reaganomics Eighties, flummoxed potbellied coppers, ditching school seven days a week and twice on Sundays on matinee movie screens and after-school televisions around the world,” insisted on becoming his slave. Also, Hominy demanded to be beaten every Thursday. But Me has no stomach for brutality, so he sent Hominy each week to a dominatrix.

Satire is the only tool to describe the post-racial racism that wallpapers every room in the modern USA. This novel is like The Simpsons if it were written by an African-American philosophy major. Like all books set in LA, it could easily become a movie. (I see it as a rebuttal to 12 Years a Slave – one possible title: Please Enslave Me!.)

All white guys fantasize about having an African-American best friend who’ll reveal to them the secrets of being black, and in this book Paul becomes that friend. But is he telling the truth, or is he “pulling our ass”? (In 1971, I worked in a mailroom with a Jamaican guy named Jake who’d constantly say, “I’m just pullin’ your ass” – meaning that he was kidding. “I’m just pulling your leg” is the gentle, archaic, White Man style of speech. “I’m pullin’ your ass” describes exactly how it feels to be jerked around – because, for chrissakes, black people know what it’s like to be jerked around.) For example, Paul suggests that the famed virility of African-American men is a myth: I’m frigid… I’m the deadest of fish. I fuck like an overturned guppy. A plate of day-old sashimi has more “motion of the ocean” than I do. Or is he just pullin’ my ass?

One day I met the poet Michael Perkins on the UCAT bus coming out of Woodstock, New York. “I’ll tell you what’s really bothering me,” he offered. “Okay,” I replied. “I read that physicists have discovered that there are no real colors. Everything is actually shades of gray, but our brain misinterprets this data as colors. I find that really troubling.”

Imagine if this scientific breakthrough were universally accepted. Black people would be off the hook! Color is no doubt an illusion – and the color of people even more so. The four “races” – the Yellow, the Red, the White, and the Black – are neither yellow, red, white nor black. Most humans are the color of tea steeped for three minutes. Looking at my own arm right now, I’d call it “light bronze” with accents of pink and blue (blue being the veins) – and it’s not even mid-summer! [Full disclosure: I’m a half-Jew.]

Until my daughter was about 6, she couldn’t see black people. The slight gradation in shading between an Italian with a suntan and a light-skinned African-American was meaningless to her. Sylvia’s gorgeous African- American kindergarten teacher Candace – the mother of Wynton Marsalis’s children – didn’t fall into a separate category from the Mafia guy sitting on our stoop. How could I explain to Sylvia: “Now, 150 years ago people with this range of skin tones kept people with that range of skin tones as slaves…”?

The meaning of “blackness” keeps changing, and so do the words we use to describe it. There’s been at least three terms within my lifetime – and the famous Harvard Afro-American Studies Department reinvented its name in 2007, because “Afro-American” was a brief phase in our national linguistic evolution, and now sounds like a hairstyle.

After finishing this novel, I happened to read James Baldwin, and it was disorienting to move from Beatty’s ubiquitous use of “nigger” to the elegant, capitalized “Negro” – though they’re quite similar words. (Southern racists of the 1960s would employ the compromise term “nigra,” which cleverly merged the two.) Reading the N-word so many times, I was afraid I’d reflexively use it with the checkout clerk the next time I went to Gristedes: “How’s it going, nigger?”

Race has become sacrosanct in America, like religion once was. Everyone has to exercise extreme caution upon entering that territory, even African-Americans. We find ourselves describing people to strangers: “That short guy, with glasses, who wears striped shirts a lot” – using every adjective except skin color. Only Paul is having fun with the fake-duality of black vs. white. He plays with it like a five year old kid sculpting his mashed potatoes.

Gangsta rap permeates the book, with its rejection of neo-Marxist Black Power absolutism. The 1960s was a Romantic era. It was clear to Leftists, black and white, that an ideal world was possible – was even hovering directly overhead, like the Mothership hypothesized by the Nation of Islam. Gangsta rap was a realist reaction to this romanticism, describing the world that actually exists. “Off the Pigs” was a political program; “Fuck tha Police” a cry of despair. The Sellout questions the myth of racial progress, suggesting the Taoist paradox that a “step forward” can itself be oppressive. Perhaps a return to segregation – to the Negro Leagues, for example – would be salubrious for African-Americans today.

Me is an entrepreneur – in fact, a drug dealer (but one who grows his own superior marijuana strains, giving each variety an overeducated name like “Aphasia”): he’s a gangsta with a BS in animal sciences.

African-Americans, like Jews, have almost completely lost their traditional ties to agriculture. In the American South, slaves functioned as robots for an industrial-level plantation economy. Many had gardens, but none had farms. The most radical action for a black person today, Beatty suggests, is to grow corn.

From reading some post-structuralist essay in the Village Voice, I learned that a novel’s plot is always a metaphor for the book itself. In this case, Me’s farm is the novel Paul’s writing: meticulous, verdant, experimental – also extremely local. Beatty’s book is a love letter to LA: When I was in grade school, I knew from how the taste of the pomegranates would bring you to tears, from the way the summer sun turned our Afros blood-orange red, and from how giddy my father would get whenever he talked about Dodger Stadium, white Zinfandel, and the latest green flash sunset he’d seen from the summit of Mount Wilson that California was a special place. And if you think about it, pretty much everything that made the twentieth century bearable was invented in a

California garage: the Apple computer, the Boogie Board, and gangsta rap. “So you’re writing a novel?” I asked Paul one day. “Yeah. I wish it would go a little faster,” he answered. And no wonder – he spent seven years on this book.

No one invests time in anything anymore. You can feel today’s novelists multitasking, especially once you get to the second chapter. (“Wait a minute; Jonathan Lethem wrote this entire scene while checking his email!”)

The Sellout has the effortless flow of a work painstakingly written. (In the same way, a farmer toils and toils to produce an innocent turnip.) I can imagine this novel having an index; it’s an informal encyclopedia of American “race culture:” Booker T. Washington, Rodney King, Kunta Kinte, Uncle Remus, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, George Wallace, Topsy, Sammy Davis Jr. – plus, of course, the African-American members of the Little Rascals: Farina, Stymie, and Buckwheat.

It’s funny, I reviewed Paul’s first book, Big Bank Take Little Bank, for the Poetry Project Newsletter in 1992. At that time Paul was the hot young poet who’d creamed everyone else at the first Nuyorican Poetry Slam. Now he’s a distinguished novelist, Columbia prof, and “cultural commentator.” But he’s still a poet, down deep. Only a master versifier could have written this book, a monologue where every syllable counts.