“And if you think about it, pretty much everything that made the twentieth century bearable was invented in a California garage: the Apple computer, the Boogie Board and gangster rap.”
Oneworld Publications are aiming to take the Man Booker Prize two years in a row after triumphing last year with Marlon James. There can be said to be a number of similarities between that book and this – the African-American male author, the many cultural references that the British reader might struggle with, the mix of fact and fiction and both novels’ sheer edginess replete with words and images which may make the average reader feel uncomfortable. I’m not a huge fan of satire. I feel for it to work well you really need to know about the area being satirised (that’s why Margaret’s Thatcher’s favourite TV show was famously “Yes Prime Minister”). Now I obviously do not have much awareness of Black American life in Los Angeles so this might not have been a good match. I say this but last year Paul Murray’s satire on the Irish economy “The Mark & The Void” was my favourite new read so perhaps satire is something you get more into with age and experience as I really enjoyed this book too.
“The Sellout” is the main character (I’m not too sure why he’s considered a sellout) whose father talks down suicidal African-Americans until he is shot by the Police. This prompts the son to begin a process of reversing civil rights achievements beginning by redefining the boundaries of his neighbourhood that had become so notorious it was wiped off the map then introducing priority seating for whites on the buses and re-establishing segregated schools all as a way of improving lives. When he unwittingly finds himself a slave-owner he falls foul of the law. The satire is biting, there is little of the African-American existence which Beatty doesn’t have his characters comment upon and there are attacks on much of modern-day America. I struggled through the Prologue but once I got my footing within the book and knew what was going on I really did begin to enjoy it.
An ex-child actor (from the real-life “Little Rascals” series) Hominy attaches himself to “The Sellout” when he takes on his father’s role and stops a suicide attempt. Hominy is a great character seeking out the now-censored most racist of his film shorts because they contained his best acting. The importance of The Little Rascals may not be appreciated by British readers as their history is complex. These films were the first to portray black and white child actors as equals yet have been criticised for the stereotyping used in order to get laughs.
I think that like the Bob Marley assassination attempt themed “Brief History of Seven Killings” this may not appeal to the general reader and reading the “n” word so frequently is difficult whatever the context but there is much to enjoy in this profane battering-ram of a novel.
The Sellout won the National Book Critic Circle Award for Fiction and has been shortlisted for the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. It deserves a place on the Booker shortlist but the jury might opt for something very different from last year so would be an outside chance to scoop the prize.
Shortlist worthy? – Yes
Update – Sept 13th – Congratulations to Paul Beatty and Oneworld for making the shortlist.
Update- October – He’s done it! Paul Beatty has won the Man Booker Prize 2016 with Oneworld making it two years in a row. This was the first book of the longlist I read and although it did stick in my mind I did not think it was going to be the first past the post. Congratulations!
The Sellout was published by Oneworld in 2016. Many thanks to the publishers for providing a review copy