The Sellout by Paul Beatty


Review by Rick de Villiers

Among the puff-praise on the back of The Sellout (Picador, 2016) is Sarah Silverman’s assessment: ‘Brilliant. Amazing. Like demented angels wrote it.’ This, cynical reader, you might think is marketing gold: a comedian trumpeting the novel’s comedic daemon. As far as vapid soundbites go, it’s no worse than any of the other quotations that play up Beatty’s humour without touching the object of his satire. You can expect to laugh till exiled from the bedroom, or to ‘get smarter’ by staring at the pages. The other worldly, infernal-paradisal ‘demented angels’ will transport you.

And yet, for all its inanity, the curation of tributes is not completely misguided in hinting at the novel’s escapist element. The Sellout is a cutting piece of political fiction. But it so warms you to its characters, its hyperbole, its verbal mischief, that you often fail to register the brisling indignation. It’s the kind of satire Jonathan Swift extolled and practised himself: ‘a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own’.

So despite the protagonist’s surname (‘Me’), there is little of the everyman in him. He lives in a neighbourhood of Los Angeles but rides a horse; he attempts to formulate a rallying creed for African-Americans in Latin (‘Semper Fi, Semper Funky’ being an early effort); and, as a gifted horticulturalist, he specializes in the genetic manipulation of watermelons and weed. Perhaps nothing so well illustrates this otherness than his appearance before the Supreme Court: stoned on his own produce, he mounts a defence of his small-scale reinstitution of slavery and segregation.

Me is the Sellout. He earns the moniker from the irascible Foy Cheshire, but its significance goes beyond personal antagonism. In having ‘whispered “Racism” in a post-racial world’, he becomes the betrayer of several struggles. The most obvious of these is the fight of black Americans against institutional oppression. How can it be, a Supreme Court justice thunders, ‘that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave?’ But the novel asks a more pertinent question: how can it be that the restrictions, violations, and humiliations of slavery become preferable over the freedoms of a democratic society?

The answer seems partially limned in the sadly jesting figure of Hominy Jenkins – the slave.  Hominy is a former child-actor, close friend of the protagonist, and ‘Grandfather of the post-racial civil rights movement’. Already diminished by his waning celebrity, he finally breaks when his native Dickens is gentrified and utterly wiped from the map of Los Angeles. Trying to win over Me as his slaver, he explains his predicament:

‘Massa…sometimes we just have to accept who we are and act accordingly. I’m a slave. That’s who I am. It’s the role I was born to play. A slave who just also happens to be an actor. But being black ain’t method acting…This is the ultimate nexus between craft and purpose.’

With the knowledge that Hominy played stereotypically ‘black’ roles as a member of the Little Rascals cast, the statement is trenchant. Craft and purpose merge in their usefulness to a historically determined white mastery. Hominy’s sense of futility seems to derive as much – if not more – from being forgotten as from being exploited. In the absence of the derisive laughter of white audiences and, more broadly, in the absence of legislative discrimination, he is at a loss in reconciling existential disenfranchisement with a constitutional guarantee of ‘equal treatment under the law’.

What Hominy seeks, and what Me supplies, is relief from the ‘cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent’. More scathingly, cognitive dissonance also emerges because of the incompatibility (apparent, not legal) between blackness and civil liberty. Segregation and slavery thus reinstate visible modes of punitive discrimination that in a post-racial world are felt but not seen. They do not impose states of exception (as in Agamben’s sense) but render them more clearly. So by inviting a merciless beating from his friend and then revelling in the lashings, Hominy finds relief in a form of debasement in which his physical suffering is commensurate with his and his community’s marginalization.

This kind of self-striking is most moving when unaware of itself.  During Career Day at the local school, Me is about to demonstrate the castration of a young calf. Two reasons are given for the practice: to prevent bulls from inseminating cows, and to make them more ‘docile’. He asks the children if they know the meaning of the word, to which an emaciated girl responds: ‘It means bitchlike’. What is so poignant about her answer is not just that it lets us imagine, beyond this passage, the stories she has heard of her own inferiority as a woman, but that she tacitly gives them credence. Sadly, no cognitive dissonance here.

There are few of these pathetic moments that Beatty does not immediately deflate. It is a pity, because they serve to sharpen the edge of his wit and to let the levity occasionally hit a harder surface. In part, this is due to his breathless style. Some sentences are dizzying, some are dazzling, and some just strain too hard. But to ask for calmer moments is perhaps to ask for a different book. The Sellout is learned, theoretically aware, and concerned with thought rather than feeling. And, in sound satirical fashion, it is more intent on blowing up than building up.

The book’s final section (‘Unmitigated Blackness’) bears this out. In Me’s own hierarchy of black consciousness, ‘Unmitigated Blackness’ is the fourth and highest level. It includes anti-establishment pioneers as diverse as Richard Pryor, Frida Kahlo, and the Wu-Tang Clan. It sees the potential of destruction as a generative force. And it means, in sly metatextual terms, ‘essays passing for fiction’. The Sellout is not an essay, and it does pass for fiction. This is no denigration. Beatty’s satire presents no less of a critique of white privilege than a work like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. What it does is to heighten the actual through the fanciful, and to invite laughter at the price of complicity in the status quo – a space where even demented angels fear to tread.


Rick de Villiers is from Pretoria, South Africa.  He currently lives in Durham where he is completing a PhD thesis on humility and humiliation in the works of T. S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett.

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