Satire is hard. It’s hard to write and hard to read. And I’ll admit straight off that I’m not good at reading it. If the point of the jokes are too obvious, I get annoyed. If it’s too subtle, I miss it. And if there’s not much beyond jokes, I get frustrated and bored. So I’m not the ideal reader for Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. I tried to read it earlier this year and got bored with it and didn’t finish. (And, as I’ve mentioned before, the library copy I read was mildewed and gave me a headache.) But, in the interests of the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, I gave it another try. I finished this time, so that’s a plus, but I’m still not this book’s ideal reader.
The book is chock-a-block with gags and one-liners, usually involving race. It’s clear from the start that we’re not meant to take the jokes seriously, as the main character Bonbon declares:
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snick into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am, in the cavernous chambers of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, my car illegally and somewhat ironically parked on Constitution Avenue, my hands cuffed and crossed behind my back, my right to remain silent long since waived and said goodbye to as I sit in a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.
Bonbon Me has been summoned to the Supreme Court because he has been found in violation of the Constitution. His crime? Owning a slave and promoting segregation. It’s not as simple as all that, of course. The slave, a man named Hominy and the last surviving member of the Little Rascals, asked to be enslaved. And Bonbon’s efforts at segregation brought improvements to the black and brown citizens of his neighborhood.
As I’ve already noted, I’m not the best audience for satire. But, as I read this, I struggle to understand who is. It’s meant, I think, to be confronting, but until the last few chapters, I found it too over-the-top to ever actually feel confronted. Toward the end, some complexity regarding what the best answers are for America’s race problems is introduced, and I appreciated that. There’s also some interesting commentary around stereotypes and how people find comfort in them, including those being stereotyped.
In the end, I felt like this book was too interested in being outrageous to ever win me over. The characters and plot are vehicles for transgressive jokes and commentary. They never turn into living, breathing people experiencing a high-stakes situation. It’s just very much not my kind of book.