The Sellout is an arresting satire that explores race relations in present day America, and was the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize. Born in the agrarian ghetto of Dickens on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the protagonist was raised as the subject of racially charged psychological studies undertaken by his father, a sociologist. When his father is killed after being shot by a policeman, and the memoir he believed would result from his father’s controversial work never materialised, the protagonist is left poor and feeling deceived. In addition to this, the town of Dickens is officially wiped off the map. With the help of one resident, old Hominy Jenkins, the protagonist sets out to put Dickens back on the map by initiating an outrageous action that lands him in the Supreme Court. He reinstates slavery and segregates the local high school.
This book is seriously biting satire. Immediately we meet the protagonist, a black man, smoking a joint with his lawyer before he goes before the Supreme Court under the charge of keeping another black man a slave. The rest of the book is a flash back to how he ended up there, and it carries on in the same zany, mordant fashion. It is constantly commenting on race, and seems to skew every African-American stereotype and politically correct notion there is. This is definitely the focus of the book and it certainly is not character driven – not that I did not think this worked.
The insightful observations in this novel were often cloaked in humour, and this was undoubtedly a funny book. I often found myself laughing because of how poignant something was, how ridiculous something was, or because I was shocked at something Beatty had included.
Beatty is obviously an incredibly intelligent man; this book is tackling a lot of issues, is very well written, and full of references to different events in time, people and culture. I was aware throughout that there were references I just was not understanding, and often found myself a bit confused. A large part of this may be because the novel was discussing a culture I do not share. I also would have preferred a bit more emphasis on the plot, and I felt the pace slow down slightly in the second half of the novel.
Overall this was a clever, humorous, thought-provoking read which I would recommend people to try. While several references did go over my head, and I would usually appreciate more of a story line and getting to know the characters better, I could still appreciate and enjoy the novel for what it was trying to achieve, and I definitely came away having laughed and learned some things.