JUNE 4, 2015
IT HAS BEEN SAID that great satire is nearly impossible in modern America, because no matter how absurd a mirror one holds up, the culture will always outdo it, always beat one to the punch line. And so it is in Paul Beatty’s new novel, The Sellout. When the narrator, who goes unnamed saved for the sobriquets he bears (Bonbon affectionately, Sellout pejoratively, Nigger Whisperer in a pinch), finds his father lying dead in a pool of blood, gunned down by a cop, the official explanation from a police captain is:
“It was ‘accidental.’”
“And ‘accidental’ means?”
“Off the record, it means your dad pulled up behind plain clothes officers Orosco and Medina, who were stopped at a traffic light, talking to a homeless woman. After the light changed from green to red a couple of times, your dad zipped around them and, while making a louie, yelled something, whereupon Officer Orosco issued a traffic ticket and a stern warning. Your father said…”
“‘Either give me the ticket or the lecture, but you can’t give me both.’ He stole that from Bill Russell.”
“Exactly. You know your father. The officers took exception, pulled their guns, your dad ran like any sensible person would, they fired four shots into his back and left him for dead in the intersection.”
In the America of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and Freddie Gray (and so many more), the only absurdity in that passage is the forthrightness of the police captain’s account. Up to this point, The Sellout has been constructed largely of jokes, the kind that may cause readers to both cringe and howl with laughter. Not that the murder of Bonbon’s father interrupts that tone; the passage is so devoid of mawkishness you want to ask, ok so what’s the punch line?
Oh nothing, comes the answer, I was just telling you about my day.
Bonbon is on a quest to put his hometown of Dickens, a municipality so embarrassing that California has quietly disenfranchised it, literally back on the map. His idea is to draw attention to Dickens by instituting segregation of buses and schools. At which point the reader senses literary exaggeration — a gambit to conjure a cockeyed, surreal America, Beatty’s very own uncanny San Fernando Valley. But then, out of the actual American circus, comes Adam Reposa, an activist and lawyer who, while protesting gentrification in Austin, Texas this past March, applied stickers on several East Austin businesses that read:
maximum of 5 colored customers
colored BOH (Back of House) staff accepted.
sponsored by the City of Austin
Contemporary Partition and Restoration Program.
At which point, Yogi Berra’s bungling and immortal “only in America” achieves the status of both prophecy and punch line.
If The Sellout was only a series of comic vignettes taken from the headlines, it would quickly lose its effect and most likely sink into the kind of self-congratulation of a cable news show. Instead, Beatty maps a specific American consciousness, a black American consciousness, a Californian black American consciousness, with all the multitudes and paradoxes and surprises such a consciousness might contain.
Beatty is the author of four novels, two collections of poetry, and perhaps most tellingly, the editor of an African-American humor anthology called Hokum (2006). His introduction to Hokum is a sort of manifesto, a recounting of how Beatty cultivated his sense of humor, what he values in African-American art and writing (“the whimsy upon which “fuck you” and freedom sail”) and what he doesn’t (the work of the much venerated Maya Angelou gets called out for being the mediocre noble-sufferer, self-help, chicken-noodle soup for the poorly read soul that it is).
Beatty’s introduction to Hokum is invaluable for understanding The Sellout — a joke about a little black boy who puts flour on his face appears in both books. And Bonbon lives up to Beatty’s desire for a voice that is, as he writes in Hokum, “eccentric, liberating, and savagely funny.” That voice — hip to the bullshit, discursive — owes a debt to fellow West Coaster Ishmael Reed, whose mantle of fearlessness Beatty wears well (but whose mythopoetic grandeur he does not approach). Firing shots at pop-culture targets from Banksy to “Dave Eggers’ do-gooder condescension,” the novel’s hook, its style, brings readers into its own special world from the first sentences of the prologue. There, Bonbon, having been summoned to the Supreme Court on charges of racial segregation and slavery, decides to get high in the court room and offer a hit to a frieze of Confucius, saying “the longest journey starts with a single puff.” “That ‘longest journey’ shit is Lao-tzu,” Confucius answers.
Every good joke, Christopher Hitchens was fond of saying, comes at someone’s expense, or as Beatty would put it, “Humor is vengeance.” This kind of satire is not aligned with the style of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the dominant satirists of the last decade or so. They are comedians who, no matter how satisfying their laughs are, leave fans patting themselves on the back for being smarter and better than those other people. Bonbon, by comparison, is ruthless, not a purveyor of hip smartness, but the kind of chaos brought on by severe honesty (let jokes be told, though the heavens fall), and there are lines to sting readers of every type.
Taking aim at those who mistake outrage for action and self-righteousness for righteous works, Bonbon asks his childhood friend, on-again, off-again lover, and ambivalent neo-segregationist accomplice Marpessa:
What does that mean, I’m offended […] It’s not even an emotion. What does being offended say about how you feel? No great theater director ever said to an actor, “Okay, this scene calls for some real emotion, now go out there and give me lots of offendedness!” […] If I’m sad, I cry. If I’m happy, I laugh. If I’m offended, what do I do, state in a clear and sober voice that I’m offended, then walk away in a huff so that I can write a letter to the mayor?
Still, having been persuaded by Bonbon to segregate the public bus she drives for a living, Marpessa briefly retreats behind indignation, calling him “a race pervert” who crawls through people’s backyards “smelling their dirty laundry, while you jack off cross-dressed as a fucking white man,” and claiming “people died so I could have this job,” her attempt at sober gravitas too slow to halt our narrator, whose rejoinders proceed at a heedless pace.
The Sellout also includes book burning, impromptu animal castration, minor(ity) characters that seem to emerge in full caricature out of a Dave Chappelle skit, and Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving member of The Little Rascals. Hominy is the most famous resident of Dickens and a former child actor from the blackface era. No one is more thrown into flux by the erasure of the town from the map than Hominy: “when Dickens disappeared, I disappeared. I don’t get fan mail anymore […] I just want to feel relevant. Is that too much for an old coon to ask, massa?” His reaction is to take on the role he says he was born to play by forcing Bonbon to take him as a slave and to whip him regularly. Bonbon assents to the enslavement to humor the suicidal old man, although he repeatedly tries to free Hominy. The whipping he finds too distasteful to do himself, so he hires BDSM dominatrices for the dirty work. From this partnership comes the idea to revive Dickens by segregating it.
In accretion, Beatty’s style and voice become so compelling, so liberated from any and all constraints of propriety, so fundamentally in pursuit of an aesthetic agenda instead of a social one, that there may come a point when many readers find that the voice has so infiltrated their own thinking that they begin extending Bonbon’s lines of reasoning for him.
Take, for example, a scene from a gathering of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a group formed by the narrator’s scholar/revolutionary/activist/organizer/farmer manqué father and his friend/rival/copycat/“fading TV personality”/poseur colleague Foy Cheshire, the story’s so-called antagonist, and the one who names our hero “The Sellout.” Foy is the sort of character one imagines would enjoy hearing himself referred to in 2015 as the country’s foremost Negro public intellectual or some similar nonsense honorific. He champions black uplift by condescending to black people as if they were children, peddling ersatz versions of classics that he has rewritten and retitled. Ergo, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn becomes “The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit,” and Great Expectations becomes “Measured Expectations,” etc.
At one meeting of the Dum Dums, Foy, now in charge of the group since the death of Bonbon’s father, invites some prominent guests, Jon McJones and “three of the world’s most famous living African Americans,” who are presented in deliciously impish redaction as “the noted TV family man _ i _ _ _ _ _ b _ and the Negro diplomats _ o _ _ _ _ o _ _ _ _ and _ _ n _ _ _ ee _ _ _ _ _ c _. ” McJones is the cliché graying, bespectacled, black professor type who thinks rap is bad for “the youth” and is proudly married to a dark-skinned black woman who eschews weave but whom he cheats on regularly with any white woman who will give him the time of day. Bonbon calls him “a snobby Negro who covered up his self-hatred with libertarianism,” which, while harsh, strikes so close to everyday life that one can’t help but picture one of these ingratiating figures the likes of whom Sean Hannity dig up every time Fox News want to put some dog-whistling racist on TV. Sure enough, McJones is up to the same old racial hack tricks of insinuating that chattel slavery in the American South is somehow an improvement on the vicissitudes of modernity. “What a load of crap,” Bonbon interjects, to which “C _ _ _ n _ _ w _ _ _” offers the reductio ad absurdum of justifying America’s systemic and historical contempt for black life, “Like you wouldn’t rather be born here than in Africa?” Before our narrator has a chance to answer, one finds oneself thinking, how could someone say something so dehumanizing? How come such things are only said to black people? You’ll never hear someone speaking matter-of-factly to Jewish people saying, would you really rather be born in forced exile and diaspora, scattered among the nations, than have the state of Israel? Looked at from that perspective, wasn’t the Holocaust a good thing at the end of the day? See how inhumane and stupid that sounds when you try it on people who aren’t black? Wait, who am I talking to? Jon McJones isn’t real, I don’t think.
Aside from the pleasures of harrowing laughter, Bonbon’s enormous complexity and depth make The Sellout a difficult, elusive novel, and make so many of the other characters seem mere shadows drawn on a page. Bonbon is, despite profound self-knowledge, a mystery even to himself, always in search of answers to his father’s question: “Who am I? And how may I become myself?” Bonbon is irreducible to one position, a blunderer at constant war with himself, but a striver nonetheless. For every expression of righteous indignation, there is a quip and blasé shrug; for every denigration of the community, there is an attempt to revive it; for every McJones, there is a Marpessa; and for all of the merciless send ups, there are flashes of immense tenderness and compassion for the foibles of others — plain, honest care for their humanity. Bonbon, observing Marpessa at work in the bus, thinks to himself, “Maybe morons can’t become brain surgeons, but a genius can be either a cardiologist or a postal clerk. Or a bus driver.” Still, for every avowal of inherent dignity, there is a confession of self-hatred, a loathing which is made all the more painful for its forthrightness, for the way it hits too close to home. “If self-loathing crosses us off the list,” the filmmaker Arthur Jafa said once while discussing Michael Jackson’s contempt for his own black body, “then there aren’t any black people in America. We all have self-loathing.”
Bonbon’s dissonance in the face of a confounding world becomes the organizing principle for the novel. It enables the book’s style and structure (essentially an extended flashback that takes leave where it starts with various digressions) and imbues it with a disjointed energy, allowing it to stake out a position and seemingly abandon it by page’s end. In fact, it is what makes The Sellout a sort of anti-satire, in the sense that satire is an act of lifting the veil to expose the truth. Here, Beatty lifts the veil to find several contradictory truths.
“Dissonance (if you’re interested),” writes William Carlos Williams in Paterson Book IV, “leads to discovery.” In The Sellout, however, that discovery is really a paradox:
It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.
The novel’s attempt to reach for a “message,” or find resolution, an explanation of why we’ve had our delicate, precious sensibilities dragged over hot coals (an experience with intrinsic value in and of itself), offers in fact a false catharsis that remains loyal to the novel’s exuberant love of insoluble contradictions. But still, that passage is inferior to what immediately follows when Bonbon finds himself sitting on the Supreme Court steps and says, “I’ve finally figured out what’s wrong with Washington, D.C. It’s that all the buildings are more or less the same height and there’s absolutely no skyline, save for the Washington Monument touching the night sky like a giant middle finger to the world.”
In this novel, such a passage nearly qualifies as a moment of sentiment, an acceptance of, and even maybe a grudging affection for, the things and people and places that are one’s own.
Is America worth loving? As much as The Sellout offers an answer, it is, but…
Whatever deep wells of anguish, mad laughter, uncertainty, and negation lie in those ellipses is what The Sellout attempts to tap, and at its very best, one gets faint intimations of a powerful strain in Black American art, indeed in much American art in general — the vengeful joke, or apocalyptic fantasy of America consumed on a funeral pyre, with the hope that it may be purified and reborn, but with no assurances of that resurrection.