Timing is everything.
Had Paul Beatty’s rollicking novel “The Sellout” landed on my doorstep five years ago or three or even last July, I might have thought it was a little over-the-top. The premise — that African-Americans would be better off in a segregated society — would have seemed outrageous. Not so much today.
“The Sellout” is wicked satire, the kind that embeds wry ironies in every sentence. The story twists and turns, making you cling to the plot line. Nothing is clear or simple, until about 50 pages in when a black man in a Los Angeles outpost called Dickens is shot in the back by police, then left lying in an intersection. And suddenly, despite its narrative gymnastics, this book is like my evening news.
The titular narrator is that dead man’s son, who goes by the name Me. He’s a wonderful mess of contradictions — raised by a social scientist who performed experiments on Me that involved electric shock. Me admits he’s the only black man in the world who has “absolutely no sense of humor.” He’s an urban farmer who castrates a calf with the help of children. He’s a surfer, a stoner and a slave owner. Also, his vocabulary is better than yours.
Me is the not Invisible Man. He’s out there like the mayor of Dickens, talking crackheads down from rooftops, when one day his town is wiped off the map. So he sets about to resurrect it with road signs and painted borders. Then he realizes the only way to make Dickens good for his people is through re-segregation. And the evidence bears him out: Once the school is all black, test scores go up.
The anti-hero in this story, who calls Me a sellout, is Foy Cheshire, who lives high and white but exploits the commercial facets of blackness, roaming the ghetto moors, running a think tank and writing politically correct adaptations of famous books. In Foy’s hands, Twain’s magnum opus becomes “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and his Young Protege, White Brother Huckleberry Finn.”
There is nothing easy about Paul Beatty. He’s the Herman Melville of satiric rap, prone to long, literary tangents on everything from blackface films to agriculture. But roll with his logic, and he’ll bring it home — in a way that captures and echoes our time.
“I’m a farmer,” says Me. “We segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican … a chance for equal access to the sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.”
Ann Bauer’s new novel, “Forgiveness 4 You,” has just been published. She lives in Minneapolis.