What would happen if a poor black and Latino neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles reinstated segregation? And what if it actually improved things --- drove the crime rate down, test scores up, raised the quality of life? That's the premise of The Sellout, Paul Beatty's scathingly satirical novel about America's most sensitive subject, race. The book manages to be both funny and genuinely shocking, like the best of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. The Guardian recently declared Paul Beatty "the funniest writer in America."
Part of what makes Beatty's writing so subversive is his willingness to engage stereotypes. His main character, Bonbon, is an African-American farmer who grows famously delicious watermelons and potent marijuana in his Los Angeles backyard. For Beatty, stereotypes like this aren't just comic fodder --- they're an excuse to turn the spotlight on the reader's own preconceptions. "I like to start at this base level of how we perceive people, and try to turn that around," Beatty tells Kurt Andersen. "We look at everything through these blinders, and I'm just trying to pull those back a little bit."
Beatty's quest to rescue African-American literature from excessive reverence and solemnity started in middle school, when he was assigned Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. "It was really shaping this idea that being black was about this experience --- not to say that it isn't, but it's about so much more," he says. "Hopefully there's room for fantasy and satire and all these things in the literature that you give young people."
In The Sellout, Beatty mercilessly mocks targets like Toni Morrison, jazz, and the Civil Rights Movement. But he's not just trying to get a rise out of people. "I'm making fun of myself first, and I'm often ridiculing stuff that I like," he says. "I like Toni Morrison." His greatest target is pomposity and pretention, in all its forms. "I have a problem with being preached at all the time, because I think it's infantilizing," he says. "I believe in allowing people the freedom to make mistakes and to fail, and to not live the life that you think they should live."
Bonus Track: Paul Beatty reads from The Sellout