I knew when I read “The White Boy Shuffle” as a junior in college that Paul Beatty had written the book every afflicted black boy wannabe novelist dreamed of creating. Because we lived in the United States, and because we were black boys, and because we were not white boys, and because the publishing industry in the United States was the publishing industry in the United States, we knew there could be only one.
Not one great one. Not one from the West Coast. Not one who got the chance to publish something filled with layers of odd-shaped nihilism, and so many shades of black love, black awkward and black fear. American literature was not hip-hop. We knew that. There could only be room for one youngish black boy novelist who dared to love us and show us that we were way mushier, way weirder and way more brilliant than we thought. White supremacy would have it no other way.
Beatty — who grew up in West Los Angeles, went on to study with Allen Ginsberg and now lives in New York — shifted the expectations of what we could do with secondary characters and literary sound for a generation of young novelists influenced by hip-hop, pull-up jumpers, Toni Morrison and Richard Pryor.
Twenty years later, it’s fairly obvious that the United States is a Kara Walker exhibit and a Paul Beatty novel unknowingly masquerading as a crinkled Gettysburg Address. Appropriately, in “The Sellout,” Beatty’s newest novel, we initially meet our narrator, Bonbon, in the frigid chamber of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Told mostly in flashback, “The Sellout” shows us how a young black boy raised by a single father, who is also a renegade academic, ends up in front of the Supreme Court. As a young man, Bonbon is led to believe that his father’s ambitious academic work might lead to a lucrative memoir that will ensure financial security.
However, after police kill his father, Bonbon realizes that instead of an actual memoir, his father left him a bill for a drive-thru funeral. Inspired by the imagination of Marpessa, his ex-girlfriend and neighborhood bus driver, Bonbon tries to revive the town of Dickens, a “locale” that has literally been removed from the map of Southern California. With the help of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, not to mention the most well-known resident of the town and a wannabe slave, Bonbon manages to reinstate a peculiar kind of slavery, segregate the buses and the local high school and get shot. All of this lands him in the Supreme Court.
“The Sellout,” like “The White Boy Shuffle,” is piloted by black American voices. Long flourishing passages that often feel too thick and too concentrated might be read as the necessary work of unfolding, undoing, unlearning and ultimately understanding confused characters in a clumsy nation committed to lots of death, dumb and destruction.
Nearly every chapter gives us an opportunity to meet wonderfully etched secondary characters like Marpessa, King Cuz and the superbly trifling Foy Cheshire, who actually names the narrator “the sellout.” But we’re also given a slew of other peripheral characters who often too conveniently exist to drop well-timed one-liners. This repetitive narrative move doesn’t slow the pace of the novel as much as it makes a spectacle of the novel’s pace. Ultimately though, as the book gets closer and closer to the Supreme Court trial, “The Sellout” makes room for both satirical spectacle and earnest literary whispers. Beatty’s reliance on so many textured backstories and secondary characterizations feels both revelatory and absolutely intentional.
Near the end of the book, Bonbon remembers watching a black comedian go off on the only white folks at a comedy show, a white “interloping” couple who kept laughing inappropriately at what the comedian called “our thing.” Lamenting his inability to ask the comedian to explain what he meant by “our thing,” Bonbon recalls, “No, when my thoughts go back to that evening, I think about my own silence. Silence can be either protest or consent, but most times it’s fear. I guess that’s why I’m so quiet and such a good whisperer…"
This acceptance of stillness in such a loud, spectacular book, which may also be read as Beatty’s brand of narrative whispering, is where this novel is at its most dazzling and ironically its least absurd. “The Sellout,” while riding beneath terrifying waves of American racial terror and heteropatriarchy, is among the most important and difficult American novels written in the 21st century.
The novel nudges us to understand and then conveniently forget that while black Americans have always been watched, imitated and uber-disciplined, we’ve rarely been loved or cared for or fairly treated by those watching. Our communication, like the communication between black characters in “The Sellout,” will always be incredibly nuanced, comically basic and ultimately private precisely because we have always been under surveillance by a nation obsessed with watching and listening but wholly unable to see or really hear us.
“The Sellout,” in all its spiky satirical absurdity, exists not just in a world created by hip-hop and cradled by the Internet. “The Sellout” firmly situates itself between white supremacy and black love, between thick anti-blackness and communal black innovation. It is a bruising novel that readers will likely never forget, especially those readers with the stomach to imagine and the will to remember the mystery and enduring thump of “our thing.”
Laymon is professor of English at Vassar College and the author, most recently, of “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America.”
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 291 pp., $26