Tough going: Paul Beatty, winner of the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout, says ’it was a hard book to write. Some people say it’s a hard book to read but I wouldn’t know.’ Picture: SUPPLIED
Tough going: Paul Beatty, winner of the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout, says ’it was a hard book to write. Some people say it’s a hard book to read but I wouldn’t know.’ Picture: SUPPLIED

The Sellout

Paul Beatty

Oneworld

Paul Beatty, the first American to win the coveted Man Booker Prize, does not like to be categorised or labelled — he even resists being called a satirist.

Yet his fourth novel, The Sellout, is being universally hailed as a blistering satire about race in America. The 24-page prologue starts with the following: "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."

If that resonates so clearly in the US and the UK, we can just imagine how Beatty’s words will affect SA.

The first four pages of the post-Booker Prize book consists of praise paeans from literary giants and nearly all of them contain the word "satire".

Beatty explains in his rich, sonorous voice that he watched a documentary about a satirist, "trying to be the witty guy. I am not like that. It boxes me in, and there’s a feeling of entertainment about the word."

Defining what he is not opens space to describe what he is – self-effacing, friendly, appreciative of his prize and aware of
everything going on around him. And a bit of a contrarian.

He teaches creative writing at Colombia University in New York and took off a year after his Booker prize win to promote The Sellout.

When he was invited to attend the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, he accepted — SA and Nelson Mandela crop up in his novel.

Its narrator, an African-American simply called Me, is an urban farmer who lives in Dickens, a ghetto community on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles. His single-parent father, a psychologist-cum-social scientist, carries out radical experiments on him.

In one, he mugs his boy in public to measure the empathy of bystanders – they join in the mugging. Soon after that, the father is killed by police in a routine roadblock, some might say just because he is black.

The narrator collects his father’s corpse, drapes it over his horse and takes it home.

The pot-smoking son then sets out to also become a social scientist. Me is aided in this endeavour by an elderly black man, Hominy Jenkins.

He insists on being a slave to Me, following him everywhere as he begs him to take him on, and calling him "Massa" at every possible opportunity.

The prologue explains that Me has been hauled in front of the US Supreme Court for taking on an absurdly willing black slave. Me has also set out to reinstate segregation in Dickens — a town so riddled with crime and poverty that even Chernobyl refused to be twinned with it.

He starts the segregation plan at the school because Hominy believes that will make the ghetto more attractive to white resettlement. He sticks up "whites only" signs in public places to help restore a sense of community.

The narrator, "like most black males raised in Los Angeles, is bilingual only to the extent that I can sexually harass women of all ethnicities in their native languages".

We had no TV, so we grew up reading books by Joseph Heller and Saul Bellow. My mother is still an artist, has a beautiful studio in LA and yes, no doubt some of my creativity comes from her

The novel’s language is rough and tough and rich with expletives. The word "nigger" appears liberally throughout the book and Beatty says "some people get upset and I think that’s a valid complaint.

We have to figure out the impact of words such as n****r and k****r.

"They don’t mean the same thing to everyone."

Beatty was born in 1962 in Los Angeles and grew up there, but there the similarity to the novel’s narrator ends. His father left his artist mother Yvonne with three children — Beatty and his two sisters — when he was three-years-old.

"We had no TV, so we grew up reading books by Joseph Heller and Saul Bellow. My mother is still an artist, has a beautiful studio in LA and yes, no doubt some of my creativity comes from her," he says.

Beatty describes her as "insanely smart, with pretty good taste. She always encouraged us and if we saw something to read, she would buy it."

He read Mad magazine from the age of four, "its humour was totally different — it was really important to me".

"Also, it was so not Californian, to me it was East Coast."

No surprises then that he moved to the East Coast, where he received an MFA in creative writing at Brooklyn College, as well as an MA in psychology at Boston University.

He began writing poetry and his first book of poems, Big Bank Takes Little Bank was published in 1991. It was followed three years later by Joker, Joker, Deuce.

His first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, was published in 1996, followed by Tuff in 2000 and Slumberland in 2008.

It took him five years to write The Sellout, which was published in 2015. "It was a hard book to write. Some people say it’s a hard book to read, but I wouldn’t know — I just wrote it. I try to be appreciative of people making an effort to read it."

The book took an emotional toll on him, did it manifest in drink or depression?

"I’m always depressed," he replies, adding that he has his reasons for this, but will not be sharing them.

He has fielded some strange questions but the oddest surely came from the Australian interviewer who asked: "Do you think that people become black? Do they have to learn what it means to be black?"

The author shot back: "Ask yourself the f***ing question, man … just think about it for a f***ing second. Did you learn to be white?"

On the topic of racism and the recent Charlottesville protest where the Ku Klux Klan marched and a woman was killed, Beatty recalls a conservative US politician saying repeatedly that the US is not the place for Nazis.

"He said it’s not the place for this, and it’s not the place for that.… For me that is counter to the notion that America’s the place for everyone, even for people that you don’t like. You can’t legislate thought."

Beatty has been asked what the major premise is of The Sellout, and he responds, "it’s not my job to teach people how to read the book".

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