The Short Version: A young black man from the LA “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens sees his town wiped off the map – and so he sets out to save the town and maybe America… by reinstating slavery, resegregating the town, and ending up on trial before the Supreme Court.
The Review: Luke Wiget’s review of The Sellout for The Rumpus was the only one I read before reading this book – and I read it months ago. Luke was the original producer of So Many Damn Books; he had been reading a galley one day and told me how uncomfortable he felt reading this book (let alone laughing at it) in public, in case somebody read over his shoulder. And he’s right: this one is kind of tough to explain if you don’t have the context. But he’s also right in his conclusion: that we ought to “read books like this—not alone in our apartments, but standing on packed, rush-hour trains. Buy the book. Buy it in extra large print. Laugh at it in front of people. Try to explain why.”
You know what you’re in for right from the start: our narrator, called before the Supreme Court, gets wicked high and faces down Justice Clarence Thomas, that famously reticent fellow, who finally speaks from the bench and questions our hero with… well, let’s just say, some aggressive language. I laughed in a sort of expulsion of air, as though I’d just been punched in the stomach, and was hooked. Beatty makes it clear in less than 20 pages that nothing is sacred in this satire – and isn’t that the way satire is meant to be done? You’re meant to laugh at the idea but also feel somewhat horrified as you start nodding your head in cautious agreement: “when you put it that way…”
And Beatty, bless him, never backs down. This has two benefits: humor and thought. I’ll get to thought later, because it needs to be said: this book begins to be funny and gets funnier. Yes, there are things that you’re going to feel very awkward laughing about… but the image of a young man riding a horse to a meeting of pseudo-intellectuals at a knock-off Dunkin Donuts just outside of LA is hilarious sans any context (racial or otherwise). A bus driver showing off insane driving tricks (driving on two wheels, slaloming through an obstacle course) for a class of students on career day? So silly.
And I think it’s safe to say that it’s okay to laugh at Hominy Jenkins (the [fictional] last surviving Little Rascal) being whipped on Thursdays not by his master (our narrator, who begrudgingly and perhaps a bit bewilderedly, takes on the onus of ‘enslaving’ Hominy) but by a dominatrix downtown. I think it’s okay to laugh at the social experiments our narrator endures at the hands of his father, despite the fact that (no matter how ridiculous they are), they include a healthy heaping of racism.
Because Beatty knows is that laughter is how he gets past your guard. When you laugh, you open up – let your defenses down, one might say – and that’s what Beatty wants. He wants to hit you with seriousness after loosening you up a little bit. It’s not terribly surprising that there’s a whole little riff on stand-up comedy in the second half of the book; Beatty is working the crowd without even seeing us.
But what is his goal? What does he want us to walk away with? We can assume that this book won’t cause a Wolf of Wall Street-esque backlash, where the dumber members of the human race miss the satire and believe the parodied is in fact being celebrated. Nobody is possibly going to believe that reinstituting slavery or segregation can, in fact, help lift a community out of oblivion… right? There’s a moment that comes near the end of the book, as Me deals with his first trial, the one before heading to the Supremes, that I’d like to quote a bit, because it’s the best summation of the answer to this question you could ever hope for – and I’m thrilled that Beatty saw fit to lay it out pretty plainly:
In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precepts, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he’s pointed out a fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim to see equality.
It’s worth talking about this shit, the judge – and by extension, Beatty – is saying. “Unconstitutional” and “nonexistent” don’t mean that these things never happened. The moral here, to me, seems to be that idea that we’ve spent too much damn time pretending that the sins of our past never happened, ignoring them as though they’ll just… go away with the passage of time. Except they don’t – and every community, no matter your race or culture or creed, suffers because of it. It may mean we have to go through hell (and I think the world of the last six months has made this book feel an awful lot less like satire and more like it was written telling the future, not unlike what happened with Super Sad True Love Story in the sense of tech advances) but facing the specter of the past is the only way we can hope to move forward.
Put another way: what makes the demagoguery of Donald Trump any less ridiculous than our narrator’s plans in Dickens, other than that one is something you thought safely trapped in satire but actually happening in real life while the other remains safely on the page (where it doesn’t actually hurt anybody)? If we can survive it and not turn away, shameful, but instead face forward and talk about it, strive to be better and to build… that’s the hope of #BlackLivesMatter, the hope you can find in Between the World and Me, the hope of Pope Francis’ changes in the Catholic Church, and the hope we voted for in 2008. It’s here, if we’re willing to do the hard thing and open up to it.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The satire runs to seed a bit in the midsection, which I wish had been a little tighter: there is a bit of wheel-spinning as our narrator attempts to woo back the love of his life and some of the day-to-day stuff gets repetitive to the point that focus begins to drift. But Beatty never flinches from his target, an honorable achievement in satire as all too often the satirist demurs in some way. Not Beatty, who rides this motherfucker right into history (make room, Jonathan Swift – satire is no longer yours to rule) by taking a laugh-out-loud hilarious book (that makes you laugh even as you get uncomfortable about laughing) and delivering one hell of a conclusion that makes you hope, just for a minute, that if everybody read it, maybe we could see our way to a better world.