Paul Beatty’s fourth novel, “The Sellout,” is about a pot smoking, African-American urban farmer in Southern California whose father (the Great Santini of racially self-aware and embittered parents who homeschool their children) has been shot and killed by police. After his father’s death, our hero, who is also the book’s narrator, enslaves a former Little Rascals star named Hominy Jenkins because Hominy wants him to. He is also attempting to put his hometown of Dickens back on the map (literally: the town as an official entity has been disappeared) by resegregating the local schools so that only nonwhite students may attend. He is then brought before the highest court in the land for violating the 13th and 14th amendments.
What, that was the novel you were going to write? No, you were not.
This is a novel that no one was going to write but Paul Beatty, just as no one else was going to write Beatty’s previous novel, the remarkable “Slumberland,” about DJ Darky, an African-American who goes to Berlin in search of a genius reclusive musician who has scored pornographic movies featuring poultry.
I know I’m making these novels sound idiosyncratic, and that’s fine, just as long as idiosyncrasy is seen not merely as whimsy or self-indulgence but rather as an essential element of any novel’s greatness. To put it another way: With every novel a writer should be asking him or herself this: If not me, then who? If the answer is, lots of people (and with lots of contemporary novels, including plenty of well-regarded ones, that is exactly the answer), well, then maybe the novelist should write something else. But no one else could have written “The Sellout” but Paul Beatty. And readers should be ecstatic he did.
Although readers should not go into this novel expecting plot, there is one (I’ve basically covered it above). But it’s gloriously skeletal, sometimes misplaced and forgotten, and often there so that Beatty (and his narrator) have an excuse to riff on the things that matter most to them: race, politics, music, television, Los Angeles. But the riffs are so smart, so tough-minded and irreverent (“Other ethnicities have mottos. ‘Unconquered and unconquerable’ is the calling card of the Chickasaw nation, though it doesn’t apply to the casino gaming tables or having fought with Confederates in the Civil War”) that the reader (at least this reader) doesn’t miss the charms of a more conventionally plotted novel.
For instance, this passage, which directly follows an account of the narrator dragging his father’s corpse through the streets of Dickens to the local donut shop: “My father founded the Dum Dum Intellectuals way back when, when he noticed that the local Dum Dum Donuts franchise was the only non-Latino or black owned business that wasn’t burned and pillaged in the riots. In fact, looters, police officers, and fireman alike used the twenty-four-hour drive-thru window to fuel up on crullers, cinnamon twists, and the surprisingly good lemonade as they fought off the conflagration, the fatigue, and the pesky news crews who asked anyone within arm’s length of a microphone: ‘Do you think the riots will change anything?’ ‘Well, I’m on TV, ain’t I, bitch?’ ”
That is a only a brief aside, dear readers, but in that one short passage you see more and better comedy, cultural insight, political commentary, anger, grief, truth than you would ever hope to find in any number of entire carefully-plotted contemporary novels. And there are many just-as-inspired moments throughout “The Sellout.”
If there’s a problem in “The Sellout” it’s that there are so many of these moments, and the moments are so rhetorically and referentially antic, that it’s perhaps tempting to overlook or undervalue the incredible sadness and seriousness at the heart of this terrific novel. But the reader should resist the temptation, because as is true of the best comic novels, “The Sellout” is at its very best when the comedy tries and fails to keep the narrator’s terror at bay, as is clear during this scene when he is swimming in a neighbor’s pool: “I turned over into a dead man’s float and tried to position my body in the posture [my father] was in when I found him dead on the street. What were my dad’s last words before they shot him? You don’t know who my son is. All this work, Dickens, segregation . . . the farming, and I still don’t even know who I am.” This — the first person narrator’s quest to find out who he is — is a classic trope of the modern American novel, but rarely has it been it executed as thrillingly as it is in “The Sellout.”Brock Clarke’s sixth, and most recent, book of fiction is the novel “The Happiest People in the World.” He teaches at Bowdoin College.