Paul Beatty’s brilliant satire, The Sellout is about a present-day man who accidentally acquires a slave and loves his former town so much that he physically redefines its town lines and reinstitutes segregation. I bought the book because it sounded like a thought-provoking and challenging satire, one of the cover blurbs, called it “Swiftian satire of the highest order.” I assumed I would appreciate the humor and the authorial voice, but detest the protagonist. But Beatty created an incredibly likable character, one that truly means well but can’t help when strange things happen to him (like having a suicidal man he saved pledge his life as a slave to him). He ends up in the Supreme Court as a result of his trying to improve his community.
The Sellout isn’t magical realism, but it feels like fantastical realism. Fantastic in the sense that it’s unbelievable and unreal. There are things that just don’t happen: a cow getting castrated by a grammar school student on career day and then the cow riding home in the front of the farmer’s truck with his head sticking out the window. Also, a well meaning but kinda nutty guy, (the narrator), placing signs around town segregating public transportation, schools, and businesses. But real enough because the characters face very real contemporary problems and engage with actual history as well as public and political figures. His father argues with cops over a traffic turn and ends up being shot four times in the back. Beatty never references the term #BlackLivesMatter but his father’s death is all too real and reflects today’s current climate.*
This reluctant hero doesn’t choose a life of service but becomes invested in students’ lives. He never went shopping for a slave. He does not believe in white superiority. And yet, he ends up owning a slave and re-instituting segregation. These things are despicable and yet, our hero unintentionally reenters a world that everyone wants to forget. This hopeful forgetfulness is what distresses our hero so much. He understands that history is what helps. Who we are depends on where we come from—geographically, socio-economically, and familially. He realizes that people are still racist but use contemporary facts to posture that they are not. He argues “that for many people integration is a finite concept. Here, in America, ‘integration can be a cover-up. ‘I’m not racist. My prom date, second cousin, my president is black (or whatever).'” (Beatty, 168) For him, bringing segregation into the present day allows for a larger discourse. He argued that we were already segregated in so many ways but no one acknowledges it.
Dickens, the narrator’s hometown has been destroyed in the middle of the night: all signs are removed and the town is absorbed into neighboring cities. There is no discussion, no warning—one morning Dickens residents are no longer living in Dickens, nor are they Dickensians. Their hometown is taken away from them and consequentially, who they are, how they define themselves is also stolen in the middle of the night. This absorption indicates a desire to forget Dickens by name, physical location, and community. And this is why the narrator draws a physical line around the town. He is reclaiming his hometown, proclaiming his community’s existence, and fighting the destruction of his history.
The narrator never gives us his first name, only his last, which is Me. He is called BonBon by his girlfriend, the Sellout by his father’s rival, and Massa by Hominy, his slave. His name is not important, who he is and where he is from, is how he defines himself. In college he majored in animal sciences and becomes a farmer in Dickens. He confesses, “who am i kidding? I’m a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists.” (Beatty, 214)
It’s in the narrator’s nature to segregate. He creates signage and notes that it makes people “realize how far we’ve come and, more important, how far we have to go. On that bus it’s like the specter of segregation has brought Dickens together.” (Beatty, 163) By separating people, he is strengthening them. As a farmer, he realizes he can better nurture his crops by keeping similar items together. The narrator sees his segregation improve students’ attention spans, better their grades, and make safer more communal neighborhoods. Of course, not everyone sees the narrator as an accidental slave-owner and well intentioned segregationist. He ends up in the Supreme Court. He’s angered so many people. He is accused of pushing back African American rights. And all of this because he wanted to improve his hometown.
Touted as a satire and marketed to be humorous and thought-provoking; this book is so much more. It’s about a father-son relationship, it’s about the love for one’s hometown and community. And this book is a testament to great stories and a love of the English language. Beatty’s writing is so very Nabokovian. He writes with great care and love of America. He’s angry, yes, he’s pissed, as he should be, but one can be angry and filled with love at the same time. Why would his narrator try to improve his community if he didn’t care? Beatty’s narrator—farmer, slave-owner, segregationist, and surfer is likable and intelligent. He’s not some bumbling idiot who doesn’t know right from wrong. He knows. He’s incredibly aware of the past and wants to change the future.
*By term I mean the three words linked together and proceeded by a hashtag. To me, this book is an incredibly important book and speaks to why black lives matter. However, the narrator, while well-meaning, isn’t exactly political.