Nov 14 2016

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

I picked up this book hoping for a little comfort after the recent elections but found something else instead: stark truth served up as satire. The stark truth is rarely comforting but — and this is why the book merits four stars from me rather than three — in Paul Beatty’s hands, it is not bleak. And that’s a big deal, because hope and confidence in humanity, and not in government or in external forces but in ourselves and our immediate societies and the lives we immediately touch, are underrated sentiments that deserve to be spoken of and written of more often, and not just as platitudes but as calls to action to examine ourselves and see how we can be and do better.

The Sellout highlights the hypocrisies of modern American society, and in so doing leaves no sacred cow untipped. It skewers the notion of a post-racial society, of the idea that competition is discouraging and unnecessary, of the belief that any person, much less community, is somehow special simply by virtue of existing. It emphasizes that identity matters, but only as a secondary to good, moral actions, and that complexity is something to be engaged, not shied away from.

Unfortunately, the book itself is sloppy in terms of narrative, particularly towards the rather abrupt ending. I feel that the Supreme Court case was given too little shrift, even as I appreciated the accurate portrayal of Washington DC. I’m not 100% certain how I feel about this as a Booker prize winner, though I certainly enjoyed it more than last year’s a A Brief History Of Seven Killings. I wish I had time to look through the rest of the offerings on the shortlist, but I will say that The Sellout isn’t unworthy of the honor, by virtue of its searing, sharp message alone, if not necessarily in form.

It was also interesting to note the differences in the two library systems I considered borrowing this book from in digital format. The DC Public Library had 7 people each waiting for 15 copies, while Montgomery County’s had 1 person each waiting for 8 copies. I opted for the latter, of course.

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