At the start of The Sellout, one of two American novels which were shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a man is called before the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, charged with “abject violation” of “the Civil Rights Acts . . . the Equal Rights Act of 1963, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and at least six of the goddamn Ten Commandments”. The defendant, the son of “the esteemed African-American psychologist F K Me”, shows his contempt for the highest court in the land by stuffing a pipe full of home-grown weed and getting thoroughly, brazenly, blazed. The police officer beside him offers up her lighter as the man tells us that he has “been charged with a crime so heinous that busting [him] for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering and a multinational oil company like British Petroleum with littering”.
“N****r, are you crazy?” blurts out the lone black judge on the bench, unsure how to interject formally, never having done it before. The fulminating justice wants to know “how it is that in this day and age a black man can violate the hallowed principles of the Thirteenth Amendment by owning a slave” and how that same man could “wilfully ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and argue that sometimes segregation brings people together”.
Over the course of his fourth novel, Beatty – who teaches creative writing at Columbia University in New York – deconstructs this surreal tableau to show the many ways in which “equal justice under law” remains an abstract concept for much of black America, making a return to the bad old ways seem somehow pragmatic, perhaps even humane. “It’s illegal to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?” the defendant notes, on his first appearance in court. “Well, I’ve whispered ‘racism’ in a post-racial world.”
This takes us to the book’s central dilemma: schooled in “liberation psychology” and “the plight of the black race” by his eccentric father in Dickens, a ghetto community on the outskirts of southern LA, our narrator is deemed a “sellout” by his girlfriend, Marpessa, and by Foy Cheshire, the leader of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, the “local think tank” and the “closest thing the city had to a representative government”. He is a sellout because despite “countless California cruelties and slights against the blacks . . . like Propositions 8 and 187, the disappearance of social welfare, David Cronenberg’s Crash, and Dave Eggers’s do-gooder condescension”, he hasn’t uttered “a single word” in opposition. In an age when “social activists have television shows and millions of dollars”, and to argue that “it isn’t race that’s the problem but class” is to acquiesce – this is just not acceptable.
The removal of the “Welcome to Dickens” sign from the roadside is apparently all that is required for the city to be forgotten altogether. After the Sellout’s father is gunned down while fleeing two LAPD officers – “Just because racism is dead don’t mean they still don’t shoot n****rs on sight,” the son imagines him saying, half expecting his father to stand up, dust himself off and offer up his death as a lesson to “inspire” him – our narrator is forced to ask some difficult questions. Specifically: “Who am I? And how can I become myself?”
This is the emotional core of Beatty’s powerful, poignant book. While the courtroom drama may boil down to the question of “whether a violation of civil rights law . . . results in the very same achievement these heretofore statutes were meant to promote” (as one smart justice finally seems to twig), the Sellout’s journey is better understood as a personal journey, a welcome reminder that identity is forged amid overlapping private and communal experiences and cannot be uniformly enforced.
How else to explain the view espoused by Hominy Jenkins, a Sancho Panza to the Sellout’s Don Quixote, that “true freedom is having the right to be a slave”? (Hominy is a former child actor-turned-“race reactionary”, who hopes to repay his “massa” for saving his life by literally owing him his life through indentured servitude.) How else to explain the counterintuitive pride taken when the duo tour Dickens handing out “No whites allowed” signs to local restaurants and beauty shops, in part attracting the attention that finally gets the city reinstated on the map? “The customers love it,” the proprietors explain. “It’s like they belong to a private club that’s public!”
The Sellout is a compelling act of demonstrative rhetoric, a masterful show of verbal energy that questions just how far equality has come and where it hopes to go.