The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Man Booker Long List)


This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.

That is the very first sentence of the novel, a sentence which immediately sets the tone for the 288 pages which follow. There is nothing subtle to be found in any of them.

The narrator’s father was a social psychologist of some renown, founder and sole practitioner in the field of Liberation Psychology, who changed the family name from Mee to Me.

Bonbon and his father live in Dickens, a ghetto community on the outskirts of Los Angeles, which was established in 1868 as an agrarian community, unlike Irvine which was “a breeding ground for stupid, fat, ugly, white Republicans and the chihuahuas and East Asian refugees who love them…”

As you can see, barely thirty pages in, this book is filled with sarcasm, wit, and accusation. The humor with which he writes does not necessarily make it funny; often it made me, the reader, decidedly uncomfortable. A goal, I suspect, that was tantamount in his mind.

Bonbon describes his father as the Nigger Whisperer, a role which the neighborhood looked to him to fulfill after his father died. This he did, even though his father was only busy as a whisperer on Friday nights.

Every payday he’d be inundated by teeming hordes of the bipolar poor, who having spent it all on one place, and grown tired and undated from the night’s notoriously shitty prime-time television lineup, would I wedge themselves from between the couch-bound obese family members and the boxes of unsold Avon beauty products, turn off the kitchen radio pumping song after song extolling the virtues of Frisau nights living it up at the club, popping bottles, niggers, and cherries in that order, then having canceled the next day’s appointment with their mental health care professional, the chatterbox cosmetologist, who after years of doing heads, still knows only one hairstyle-fried, dyed, and laid to the side-they’d choose that Friday, “day of Venus,” goddess of love, beauty, and unpaid bills to commit suicide, murder, or both. But on my watch people tend to snap on Wednesday. Hump day.

Bonbon is not merely a farmer, or a whisperer. He is fully involved in his community, finding many other places to  ridicule. Here’s an example, as our hero brings a calf to Career Day at Chaff Middle School and plans to discuss castration:

“What’s ‘castration,’ maestro?”

“It’s a way of preventing male animals from fathering any children.”

“Don’t they got cow rubbers?”

“That’s not a bad idea, but cows don’t have hands and, like the Republican Party, any regard for a female’s reproductive rights, so this is a way to control the population.”

I find myself constantly amazed that “a female’s reproductive rights,” or “a woman’s right to healthcare,” are phrases being used to disguise a mother’s choice for her life above any other’s.

Be that as it may, Bonbon decides that what will help the kids to behave and respect each other is to segregate the school. Certainly, he claims, the school had been segregated and re-segregated many times before by reading levels and behavior problems.

“You want to segregate the school by race?”


“If you think you can do it, go ahead. But I’m telling you, there’s too many Mexicans.”

He justifies his idea to segregate the school, and then the town, in this way:

I’m a farmer, and farmers are natural segregationists. We separate the wheat from the chaff. I’m not Rudolph Hess, P.W. Botha, Capitol Records, or present-day U.S. of A. Those motherfuckers segregate because they want to hold onto power. I’m a farmer: we segregate in an effort to give every tree, every plant, every poor Mexican, every poor nigger, a chance for equal access to sunlight and water; we make sure every living organism has room to breathe.

In my opinion, The Sellout will go far as a contender for the Man Booker Prize because like The Iraqi Christ which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few years ago, it has shock value. It also has the correct political voice for our time.

8 thoughts on “The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Man Booker Long List)”

  1. It sounds great! I think it’s more than just “correct” to not interfere with somebody else’s body. It is part of a worldview in which we trust women, as well as men, to make choices that are right for them at the time.


    1. Hmmm, I’m not sure what you mean about “someone else’s body.” But, you are right about the worldview which has expanded beyond all boundaries that we’re in place when I grew up. It would be easier for me if I could trust man’s (and women’s) choices to be right, but sadly I see us as so fallible.


  2. I think the discomfort was intentional, and that can be a good thing with satire, but what I read before I ditched it the first time just seemed too over the top for me and not particularly subtle. Satire is difficult for writers and for readers, and I’ll admit to being a little tone deaf to it at times. Maybe I’ll have more success with it on a second try, but it’s the type of book I find hard to like, even though I’m generally sympathetic to the politics behind it.


    1. Satire is a good word for laying blame and accusation. 😉 I am not surprised to find this book in the long list given the turmoil of the times, which never ever seem to get better.


  3. I would not have the strength to read all these books you do, when so many of them seem to “speak with the correct political voice for our time.” Or the emotional voice of our time, etc. Thank you for a helpful review.


    1. Well, Gretchen, you know how I feel, how we both feel, about our Father being first no matter what the political climate says is important. And with that comes grace and love, which I’m trying with all my heart to focus on in these difficult times.

      Liked by 1 person

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