“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. … I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. … But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”
The narrator is Me, son of F.U. Me, a psychologist who home-schooled him, reading him academic papers instead of bedtime stories. The Mes are descended from the Kentucky Mees, one of the first black families to settle in southwest Los Angeles (his father dropped the second “e” from the name). Me is in court is because he has tried to reintroduce segregation to Dickens, the majority black-Latino agrarian ghetto he calls home. Dickens is so run-down that, to save Los Angeles embarrassment, it has been wiped off the map. Segregation is Me’s way of trying to put Dickens back on the map.
It starts with a sign posted in the local bus driven by Marpessa, the unrequited love of Me’s life. The sign says PRIORITY SEATING FOR SENIORS, DISABLED AND WHITES and is a birthday present from Me to his good friend Hominy. Finding that people start behaving better on the bus, Me follows it up with a billboard opposite the local school announcing a new academy for whites only, which results in higher test scores in the school.
This is a delightfully subversive book that turns racism in the US on its head. I found myself squirming and laughing out loud at the same time. Paul Beatty has a wicked sense of humour, and everything—and everyone—is fair game. Me describes his trip to Washington: “Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shoed Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest of the Los Angeles jungle, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-jeaned yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks.” When the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals—a group of black intellectuals established by his father—suggest that Me take his father’s place as leader of the group, Me mocks it as “The Kim Jong-un of ghetto conceptualism”. And there is the delightful reworking of The Charge of the Light Brigade: “The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade”.
But there is so much here that I feel I have only skimmed the surface. Like the best comedy, Beatty uses the humour to make some serious points, including about the mass appeal of racial stereotypes in entertainment. Hominy was once a child actor in Little Rascals, the popular TV series about a group of kids of different ethnicities. Hominy is proud of his work, in spite of the fact that the show used racial stereotypes for humour.
The Sellout, by subverting racism, raises questions about the civil rights movement, the US Constitution and racial equality. I can see why it won the Man Booker Prize—it is original and thought-provoking.