The Sellout, for which Paul Beatty just became the first American writer ever to win the Booker Prize, is both blisteringly funny and blisteringly furious.
It’s about a young black man who finds that his city, Dickens, has been taken off the map in South California, incorporated into greater Los Angeles. He devotes himself to saving Dickens, but in the end his efforts land him in front of the Supreme Court for attempting to restore slavery and segregation. (It’s a long story.)
The Sellout is a satire, and it has fangs. It’s devoted to deconstructing the myth of racial equality in America, and what it finds would be heartbreaking if The Sellout weren’t simultaneously so funny. Instead, it’s infuriating.
Here’s what I mean. Halfway through the book, as our hero struggles to save Dickens, he searches for a sister city to give the town some legitimacy:
In the end we found it impossible to ignore the impassioned pleas of the Lost City of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males). Others state categorically that the walls of the locale have been irreparably breached by hip-hop and Roberto Bolaño’s prose. That the popularity of the spicy tuna roll and a black American president were to white male domination what the smallpox blankets were to Native American existence. Those inclined to believe in free will and the free market argue that the Lost City of White Male Privilege was responsible for its own demise, that the constant stream of contradictory religious and secular edicts from on high confused the highly impressionable white male. Reduced him to a state of such severe social and psychic anxiety that he stopped fucking. Stopped voting. Stopped reading. And, most important, stopped thinking that he was the end-all, be-all, or at least knew enough to pretend not to be so in public. But in any case, it became impossible to walk the streets of the Lost City of White Male Privilege, feeding your ego by reciting mythological truisms like “We built this country!” when all around you brown men were constantly hammering and nailing, cooking world-class French meals, and repairing your cars.
This passage is built around a maddening and absurd idea — the idea that white men do not benefit from systemic privileges. But instead of just getting angry and sad about it, Beatty leans into its absurdity, until white male privilege has become its own mythological lost city.
As the novel goes on, Beatty keeps riffing on all of the absurdities and logical impossibilities that white supremacy asks us to believe, in ever spikier and funnier and more obscene passages that just get angrier and angrier as they get funnier and funnier. The Sellout is a book that laughs to keep from crying, because the truth of the way America thinks about race is just that upsetting.