Sunday 14 January 2024

Theirs not to reason what the fuck, Theirs but to shoot and duck.

The Sellout

I might have been half listening to one of those BBC Sounds programs whilst preparing lunch, or reading an end of year best books list in The Guardian. Whatever, someone recommended Paul Beatty's The Sellout and said it was about a black man who re-introduces slavery and segregation to the USA. What?!

Yes, it's true. The story begins with the protagonist, Bonbon, who claims he's never committed a crime, "in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America" waiting for his case to be heard.

Bonbon is an urban farmer renowned for the deliciousness of his fruit. Two things define him, the fictional Dickens, "a ghetto community on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles" where he lives, and his father, whose child-rearing methods were questionable at best. Unfortunately, when both these things disappear, Bonbon realises "suddenly I had no idea who I was, and no clue how to become myself."

There's a lot of humour in the book and two sections stand out. First, when one character, high on crack recites his own verse, "The Charge of the Light-Skinned Spade", a riff on Alfred Lord Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade. Second, a whole chapter entitled City Lites: An Interlude, which relates Bonbon's attempt to find a suitable twin town for Dickens.

How to rate it tho'? If I were a professional reviewer, I'd give The Sellout 5 out of 5 stars. I picked up a rap-like rhythm in the language of the Prologue. The storyline is entertaining, and Paul Beatty plays around with our prejudices, questioning where the limits of our concern lie. What about the injustices suffered by "the Native Americans? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking California condor". However, I'm not professional, so I can't quite give it top rating because sometimes I found the sentences so long that my thoughts meandered away from the story and onto the to-do list of my life.

Still, it's a genius book, unlike anything I've read before, certainly worth reading a first time, and maybe even a second too.