Fiction – Kindle edition. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 305 pgs. Purchased.
Beatty’s novel opens with the unnamed narrator – we later learn he is known as Bonbon – arriving at the United States Supreme Court for his case, Me vs United States. The case alleges that the narrator has violated a number of tenants of the United States Constitution, including the Thirteenth Amendment banning the practice of slavery within the country.
Through his ambulance-chasing lawyer, the narrator-turned-defendant plans to argue that black people are better off living in segregated communities or held in bondage. A shocking assertion that upsets the notoriously silent black Supreme Court Justice, the unnamed Clearance Thomas, in part because the defendant himself is black.
Jumping back in the timeline, Beatty lays out how Bonbon came to this assertion. Raised by a single father, Bonbon was subjected to racially charged psychological studies, including standing his son on a street corner in a Southern small town and instructing him to whistle at a white woman. Bonbon was told all his life that these experiments would end the family’s financial woes, leading them to finally achieve the “American Dream”.
But when his father is killed by the police, Bonbon learns the “research” will not led to accolades, publications, or monetary support. Instead, Bonbon is expected to step into his father’s role as the neighborhood “N****r whisperer”, the person called on to talk down those threatening to commit suicide, and accept his lot in life as an urban-farmer in Dickens, the “agrarian ghetto” on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles.
Except, Dickens has been wiped off the map, leading the narrator to hatch a plan to reestablish the community’s boundaries with the assistance of the town’s most famous resident, the last surviving actor from “Little Rascals”, Hominy Jenkins. Hominy wants to go back to the time period he understands, insisting Bonbon serve as his “massa” and punish him for his misdeeds. Bonbon begrudgingly agrees to reinstate slavery, which leads him to initiate other outrageous actions like segregating the bus and announcing the establishment of an all-white high school in Dickens.
As a result of the segregation, crime on the bus ceases, according to the local bus driver. The previously failing high school suddenly becomes one of the top performing schools in the greater Los Angeles school district, leading a bus load of white kids to arrive demanding enrollment and, ultimately, to Bonbon in front of the Supreme Court.
Beatty’s novel has been heralded as a great example of satire and a comedic novel. Interestingly, when I looked at Wikipedia to make sure this eyebrow-raising novel was written by a black man, I found links to interviews with Beatty where stated that he does not think of himself as a satirist. He has also, apparently, said that he believes discussing the comic aspects of the novel prevents critics from having to discuss its more serious themes.
I can certainly see how people would fall into that trap. It is easier to laugh than to ruminate on the questions Beatty raises about America’s assertion that it is a post-racial society. (An assertion harder to see as true from the viewpoint of a 2019 American reader given the 2016 election cycle.)
But I didn’t find the book to be very funny; it mainly left me feeling very uncomfortable, hence my search on Wikipedia to confirm the racial identity of the writer. (A non-black writer constructing this novel would be considered a racist; a black writer crafting this story could be considered a satirist.)
But I appreciated the callout and the pointed commentary on how the elimination of state-sanctioned racism and the sanitization of their experiences – either by rebranding their communities or removing the vocabulary used in Huckleberry Finn – has not improved the outcomes for black Americans. And, as difficult as the content could be, the book was well-written, pulling me in from the start with Thomas’ vulgar tirade towards the narrator.
‘The Sellout’ won the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2015.