7 min read ⌚
Most people don’t want to be sellouts.
However, in the almost upside-down world of Paul Beatty’s book, “The Sellout” seems all but a compliment.
See for yourself!
Who Should Read “The Sellout”? And Why?
“The Sellout” is a book which examines racial relations in a way not many books before it have.
In other words, the novel presents a unique way we can talk about race and injustice.
That’s why it’s – numerous publications – a must-read.
Regardless of your background and preferences.
Paul Beatty Biography
Peal Beatty is an American writer and an associate professor of writing at Columbia University. In 2016, he became the first American writer to win the coveted Man Booker Prize for “The Sellout.”
“The Sellout” is both his last book and his fourth novel. His previous three novels are “The White Boy Shuffle” (1996), “Tuff”(2000), and “Slumberland” (2008).
In addition, he has authored two books of poetry – “Big Bank Take Little Bank” (1991) and “Joker, Joker, Deuce” (1994) – and edited an anthology of African-American Humor, “Hokum” (2006).
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man,” writes the unnamed African-American narrator of “The Sellout” in the novel’s opening sentence, “but I’ve never stolen anything.
And then he goes on with a long list of some other things he has never done, which include basically every black stereotype you can think of.
But, why is he saying all of this?
Because, as we learn in the very next sentence of “The Prologue,” regardless of all the things he hasn’t done, he’s still talking to us from “the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America” where he sits “in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”
So, the book is basically a trial.
However, this isn’t just one more novel about a wrongly convicted African-American.
Much in the vein of Ellison’s brilliant “Invisible Man” – justly called “the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century” – “The Sellout” is one of the funniest books you’ll ever read.
About some of the most serious topics that need to be discussed.
Because, basically, that’s the definition of satire – in its beautifully bitterish and biting Swiftian form we’ve unfortunately forgotten all about in the meantime.
So, what’s the nature of our unnamed narrator’s guilt?
Well, considering that he’s black, the strangest thing you could think of: he’s tried for attempting to keep a slave and reintroduce segregation in 21st century California, particularly the fictional town of Dickens.
What follows is his defense, as he recounts the life which finally brought him before the Supreme Court.
We learn that our narrator – whose confusingly weird surname is “Me” – was born to a single father, a sociology professor,”sole practitioner of the field of Liberation Psychology.”
In the eyes of his father, our narrator was much more of a social experiment than a son.
So, he used all of his knowledge to condition his son into his prejudices which were, more or less, a form of racial paranoia: the narrator’s father saw racism everywhere.
If you’re wondering what this means in practical terms, here’s a scene from our narrator’s earliest childhood days:
When I was seven months, Pops placed objects like toy police cars, cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and a copy of ‘The Economist’ in my bassinet, but instead of conditioning me with a deafening clang, I learned to be afraid of the presented stimuli because they were accompanied by him taking out the family .38 Special and firing several window-rattling rounds into the ceiling, while shouting, ‘Nigger, go back to Africa!’ loud enough to make himself heard over the quadraphonic console stereo blasting ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in the living room.
Not exactly the best childhood, ha?
His father’s racial paranoia eventually in the narrator being home-schooled. Even so, in the eyes of our protagonist, racism was something much more fabulous than real: more or less, the only place he experienced it, was in theory.
Years later, the police shoot the father of the narrator after the escalation of a bust on the sidewalk.
As a consequence, the narrator inherits both the land of his father – a farm in the inner city – and his role: that of a “Nigger Whisperer,” a man skilled enough to talk some sense into the minds of those niggers who had “done lost they motherfucking mind.”
Sometime later, the City of Dickens is erased from the map, as the government attempt to boost property values.
The narrator doesn’t take this lightly and vows to bring the name Dickens back in front of his father’s old intellectual circle, who goes by the name of Dum Dum Donuts.
The Dum Dum Donuts are headed by Foy Cheshire, who’s basically a second version of the narrator’s father.
So, it’s not a good thing to say to him that we shouldn’t remove the word “nigger” from classic works of literature.
Yet, that’s exactly what our narrator does.
The title of the book.
Namely, Foy calls the narrator a “Sellout.”
Fortunately, our Sellout has some better things to do than worrying about his nickname – like, for example, rekindling an old passion for a college friend named Marpessa who is currently a bus driver.
And also – agreeing to take a slave.
Agreeing… to… with whom?
Well, the slave himself, the elderly neighbor of our narrator – Hominy Jenkins, “the last surviving member of the Little Rascals.”
Now, that’s not true, but there’s such a thing as “The Little Rascals” curse, and not many of the cast has lived long enough to tell about it – mostly because that’s exactly what the curse prevents.
Anyway, this Hominy Jenkins is so distraught by the fact that Dickens isn’t on the maps anymore that, for some reason, he decides to become a slave of our narrator.
That’s not what our narrator wants, but, in the end, he has no option but to agree.
He is a good master, and he even celebrates Hominy’s birthday, by setting a party on Marpessa’s bus, where Hominy – ah, the nostalgia! – wants to give away his seat to a white woman.
To make the party even more contemporaneous, the narrator glues some stickers on the bus seats, segregating the whites from the blacks.
Marpessa forgets to take the stickers down, and as a result, her bus becomes the most famous bus around – since it’s the safest.
Charisma, the assistant principal at Chaff Middle School and Marpessa’s best friend, believes that the reason why her friend’s bus is the safest one is simple: the stickers remind the blacks both how far they’ve come and how much they still have to go.
Our narrator has a brilliant idea:
Let’s try the same at Chaff Middle School!
They do exactly that, but once our narrator tries to repeat history by trying to integrate white students into the school, Foy and Charisma are a bit mad.
So, Charisma blocks white students from entering Chaff Middle School, and Foy shoots the narrator.
The event leads to the revelation that our narrator is trying to segregate Dickens and that he owns a slave.
Five years later, his case ends up at the Supreme Court.
And we are back in the present – and at the beginning of our book.
The Sellout Epilogue
As he waits for the Supreme Court’s decision, our narrator spends his time mostly sleeping with Marpessa, and discussing reparations with Hominy who has decided to free himself.
In the final chapter, at a black comedy night, he witnesses the black comic chasing out a white couple from the audience, the only two white people present at the show.
His argument: “This is our thing!”
He doesn’t protest, but he’s left thinking about the event long after: “I wish,” he says, “I’d stood up to the man and asked him a question: ‘So what exactly is our thing?’”
In the meantime, Obama – “the black dude” – wins the presidential elections and Dickens (now back on the map) is in full celebratory mode.
Foy Cheshire not excluded. In fact, he’s waving the American flag for the first time in his life.
Because he believes that America has paid off its debts.
The narrator asks angrily:
And what about the Native Americans? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking California condor? When do they collect?
Foy just shakes his head and says something to the effect that the narrator’s father would be ashamed of him and that he’d never understand.
And he’s right,” concludes our protagonist. “I never will.
Like this summary? We’d like to invite you to download our free 12 min app, for more amazing summaries and audiobooks.
“The Sellout PDF Quotes”
That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book—that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that… Click To Tweet
I understand now that the only time black people don't feel guilty is when we've actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail… Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Introducing her interview with Beatty for “The Guardian,” Elizabeth Donnelly describes “The Sellout” as an “absurdist comedy” and “a masterful work that establishes Beatty as the funniest writer in America.”
Even comedians such as Sarah Silverman share Donnelly’s opinion.
And the book got a Man Booker!
Rendering us basically speechless.