‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty


2015, 289 P

I still haven’t really come to terms with the fact that the Booker Prize now includes American works. Yes, I know that we’re all globalized and agile these days, but I think that the Booker has lost its distinctiveness since it was opened up beyond Commonwealth countries. While I’m ambivalent about the Commonwealth as a political entity, I do think that there is some underpinning cultural thread that links countries – especially the ‘white’ part of their population-  where, in living memory,  large numbers have grown up with a portrait of the Queen on the wall. The Booker Prize, I feel, is still the Commonwealth’s prize.

So I spent the first half of this Booker-Prize winning  book being angry at its American swagger, showoffiness and shoutiness. It was almost exactly half-way through that I started laughing, and then found myself chuckling away at various points to the end. I don’t read a lot of satire, and it’s a rather wicked pleasure when I do.

The un-named narrator, living in a post-Obama time, is African American and lives in Dickens, a lower-middle-class suburb on the outskirts of Los Angeles. His home-schooled upbringing had been unconventional and overseen by his sociologist father who seemed determined to visit on his son all the most ethically-controversial psycho-social laboratory experiments of the twentieth century. After his father’s death, the narrator drifts into his father’s circle of old, idle chatterboxes who he dubs “The Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals” and tries to hook up with an old flame. It is while he is wooing his bus-driving love-interest Marpessa that he jokingly starts off re-segregation on her bus (yes, re-segregation, not de-segregation) and, discouraged by the neglect of Dickens as a suburb, initiates a broader grass-roots program of resegregation throughout the suburb that actually works. School results improve, crime declines, civic pride burgeons – all because of a self-imposed segregation.

It’s all very slick and clever and  the book would probably easily reward a second reading. The blurb on the back describes it as “a powerful novel of vital import and an outrageous and outrageously entertaining indictment of our time”. Which is probably true. But I still think that it’s better recognized under the New York Times Book Review (as it was) than as winner of the Booker Prize.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

2 responses to “‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty

  1. My copy of this arrived yesterday so I’ll be reading it soon:)

  2. Oh Janine I couldn’t agree more with your statements about the Commonwealth and the Booker. I am also mean spirited enough to say “let us have just this one thing without America”, why does everything have to include them, when they are the dominant Western force in just about all facets? Still, I do think that this book sounds interesting, and I am intrigued enough to think about reading it.

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