The Short Version: Gunnar Kaufman is a young black man whose family moves from Santa Monica to West LA – which in turn begins to change him from gawky nerd to basketball superstar and, just perhaps, the black messiah.
The Review: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was a revelation for me last year. Such insanely funny satire – emphasis on the insane – had been missing from my life and even when the book faltered, I couldn’t get over how freaking funny it could be while managing to also drive home some particularly potent critiques of pretty much every damn thing. It was a tough book to read at times, because such relentlessness can be both nerve-wracking and exhausting, but it felt necessary and I knew that before the year was out, I’d pick up his first novel. I just had to.
And then the world continued to get darker, with a demagogue capturing the angry-white-male demographic for President and black men being shot by cops with a somehow absurdly increasing frequency even as compared to the already ridiculous frequency of the last few years. Check out this excerpt and tell me that a) it doesn’t break your heart, b) it doesn’t sound like it was ripped from yesterday’s headlines, and c) it isn’t fantastic goddamn writing:
“Them cracker motherfuckers did it again.” The Rodney King verdict; I’d completely forgotten. “They let them racists go. I’m surprised the judge didn’t reprimand the peckerwood so-called peace officers for not finishing the job.”
Let go? What did that mean? The officers had to be found guilty of something — obstruction of traffic, at least. I doubted the man in the patent leather shoes’ version. I could hear the TV in his living room, and I peeped through his doorway. The smirk on the reporter’s face told me the man was right, even before I heard her say, “Not guilty on all charges.”
I never felt so worthless in my life.
“I never felt so worthless in my life.” That line, that moment alone, assures this book a certain level of unassailable excellence. Even thinking about it now, I can’t help but be just absolutely gobsmacked. Anyone with even a smidge of empathy likely feels the same way.
And so I found myself reading a book that, despite being published twenty years ago, is arguably more timely than his latest effort. In fact, it was difficult at times to remember that the book was set in the 90s, because so much of it felt so present-tense to our particular moment in this country. I struggle to talk about it coherently, honestly, because of just how present and one might say dangerous it feels. The ultimate resolution of the novel, the thing that is set up at the beginning and followed through, is this idea of Gunnar as a reluctant messiah of sorts who has gathered the African American community together to wait for nuclear annihilation – and not in a “the Russians are gonna drop the bomb” but in a “Hey, government. Go on, do it – kill us. Do us the favor.” As he begins to advocate for this suicidal behavior, Gunnar essentially argues that black people – black men in particular – ought to kill themselves before someone else does it for them. This is satire of the darkest kind, because obviously Paul Beatty isn’t advocating that himself… but also, this kind of existentialism-taken-to-the-furthest-extreme is at least logically sound.
But Beatty’s look, specifically, at the inherent danger to a human being in this country just by virtue of their skin color is only one part of his satire. This isn’t a book all about death – it’s about how we, meaning both white people in particular and the general constructs that’ve been built up (by white people) into what might now be called “society”, use and manipulate black bodies. The best example of this is how Gunnar and his best friend Scoby become unintentional basketball superstars – none more so than Scoby, who straight-up cannot miss. (PS if you don’t think this book is a satire, a guy literally cannot miss shooting a basketball – Beatty is well aware of how he’s stretching reality.) Suddenly, there is interest in sending these boys to whatever school they might desire for college, all because they can play ball. Doesn’t matter that Gunnar’s a bright kid, miles smarter and more talented than pretty much anybody in the novel: the bastions of white culture only get interested in him once he proves he’s an asset on the court. But Scoby has it worse, in some ways, and Gunnar’s insight about it is another flash of perfect truth seared onto the page by Beatty’s pen:
“…I realized that sometimes the worst thing a nigger can do is perform well. Because then there’s no turning back. We have no place to hide… successful niggers can’t go back home and blithely disappear into the local populace. American society reels you back to the fold. ‘Tote that barge, shoot that basketball, lift that bale, nigger ain’t you ever heard of Dred Scott?'”
Beatty’s gloves are off, almost more than they are in The Sellout. He is interested in explaining, in the simplest and most direct terms, what it means to be a young black man in America. I think this is sometimes the danger of satire, because if you get people laughing, they might miss the point – and it’s part of why Beatty declared that he didn’t think The Sellout was a satire, because it was so much more. Satire isn’t supposed to be sad, you know? And yet this book is simultaneously totally hilarious and even more depressingly sad than The Sellout.
I’ll close on a lighter note, addressing some of the humor and the way that Beatty is taking aim at pretty much everything under the sun. At the end of the first chapter, he addresses the preemptive criticism about there not being any strong female voices in this novel (I don’t know what critical readership was like in the 90s, but again this feels oddly prescient because boy oh boy does the internet like to tear down excellent work because it doesn’t speak to literally everyone all the time). I’ve already mentioned the college thing, but he gets in a great line about BU ‘buying’ Ivy status – and the faux-intellectualism of both students and professors is downright spit-roasted.
OH AND THAT REMINDS ME. Before I actually finish this review, I’d be remiss not to talk about the poetry. Gunnar is, among all the other things, quite an accomplished poet – and the way that his poetry is interpreted, the way that other people want to speak for him, the way that his message is co-opted (or that a co-opting is attempted, anyway) would’ve been enough to fuel an entire novel by a less-brilliant writer than Beatty. And the poetry is fucking good, gang. It should come as no surprise, then, to discover that Beatty got his start as a poet – and you can believe I’ve already ordered both of his collections. His other two novels, too. When a talent is this sharp across twenty years, you can’t help but want to be a completist.
Rating: 5 out of 5. “What am I willing to die for? The day when white people treat me with respect and see my life as equally valuable to theirs? No, I ain’t willing to die for that, because if they don’t know that by now, then they ain’t never going to know it,” says Gunnar Kaufman, main character of Beatty’s white-hot satirelegy of black life in America in the 1990s. But every damn thing about this book feels timely, almost more timely by the minute. It is absolutely more raw than The Sellout but it is, perhaps, all the better for it – because it is a novel for right now. It’s a novel for as long as ‘now’ includes cops who can’t police themselves from shooting black men in the streets, for as long as ‘now’ includes a major party candidate for President who has no problem making racist declarations, for as long as ‘now’ values profit over life. It’s not a comfortable read, but it is a funny one – and damn is it a good one, too.