I’ve probably said too often that I prefer the Man Booker shortlist over the winner. But not for 2016. Thanks to Ely Public Library, I’ve finally caught up with the list, arriving at The Sellout by Paul Beatty. It’s brilliant social satire. The premise says it all – an African-American man becomes a slave-owner and brings back segregation in an effort to put his town back on the map.
There are many quotable passages, but I’ll just share a few: ‘They say, “pimpin’ ain’t easy.” Well, neither is slaveholdin’. Like children, dogs, dice, and overpromising politicians, and apparently prostitutes, slaves don’t do what you tell them to do.’ And ‘No one other than college hippies, Negro jubilee singers, Cubs fans and other assorted idealists knows verses two through six of “We Shall Overcome”…’ Growing up as a Chicago Cubs’ fan makes this one especially poignant. He – we never get the name of the narrator – explains the true reason why the Supreme Court doesn’t allow cameras. ‘It’s to protect the country from seeing what’s underneath Plymouth Rock. Because the Supreme Court takes out its dick and tits and decides who’s going to get fucked and who’s going to get a taste of mother’s milk.’
The novel manages references to contemporary pop culture, along side more scholarly descriptions involving, Piaget, Skinner, Goddard and Tennyson, to name a few. It’s a thoughtful read that masquerades as a page-turning comedy. One of my favourite comic novelists is Stephen Fry and, although Beatty has a more satirical edge, there are some overtones of Fry’s style and erudition in Beatty’s work.
While the comic asides fill the book, it still has solid plot and character development. It reminded me of the also marvellous BBC comedy-drama Fleabag, written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. We see a character warts and all as they stumble through life dealing with the rawness of their sexual encounters, their awkward familial relationships and close, yet ambiguous friendships while up against a world they are constantly at odds with. Like Fleabag, The Sellout, keeps its audience aware that the protagonist is a product of our present-day society. And like coming to the end of Fleabag, The Sellout left me wanting more.