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2016 Man Booker: The Sellout by Paul Beatty

the sellout

Next up on our list of longlist books is The Sellout By Paul Beatty. This was second of the two books I (Jen) predicted correctly and it is one we all wanted to read. Our panel reviewed the book on the following criteria: 1) writing quality; 2) originality; 3) character development; 4) plot development; and 5) overall enjoyment. We’ve each provided mini-reviews and ratings. Here are our ratings for The Sellout

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
2016 Man Booker (longlist)
Published in: 2015
Judges: Jen, Book Worm, Nicole, Andrew, Kate
Find it/buy it here: The Sellout

Synopsis (from Amazon): A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality―the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens―on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles―the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident―the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins―he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

Nicole’s Review: At first I thought this book was going to be super contrived and unoriginal. I quickly learned that I was wrong.

There is some serious brilliance in this book. It was outwardly funny, and also had more sophisticated humor which maybe wasn’t as laugh out loud funny, but caused me a pause to and savor the sentence/reference. I listened on audio, and got through it really quickly. The audio was very well done. The narrator nailed it.

This book is about racism. And while it is satire, and funny, it’s a serious topic, and this is a really interesting take on it. There’s no way I could fully appreciate all the references or even attempt to understand the black experience in this book. This is a book which can definitely stand up to a re-read.  I think it’s important for us to read as many of these books as possible to try to understand the current state of race relations in America, and probably the world.

Deserving of the recognition and accolades it is getting and definitely recommended.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 4/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 17/20

Jen’s Review: 
This book is brilliantly written and while hilariously funny on the surface, at heart it is a serious and profound novel that pushes the boundaries of personal comfort. I laughed aloud many times then immediately afterwards questioned whether I was a horrible person for laughing at certain things. The Sellout is incredibly complicated and packed with psychological and social theory. It is an interesting exposé on race and race relations in the U.S. At times it reads more like a meditative academic essay (if you ignore the copious amounts of profanity and liberal use of N-word) than it does a fictional story (thus why I did not give it a full 4/4 for plot or character development).

It most definitely deserves to be on the longlist. If you are easily offended, you will struggle this book but I think it’s worth the struggle. I’m pretty sure that Beatty is a genius writer. I didn’t give it full points for enjoyment since it is an intellectual book that requires some reflection to fully digest. I fully appreciated it, I just can’t say I enjoyed every minute of it.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 5/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total 17/20

Kate’s Review: Welcome to the post-racial society. The Sellout opens with our narrator, an African-American man charged with being a slave holder, getting high while waiting to appear before the Supreme Court of the United States of America. The story of how he arrived at this situation is one of the most consistently funny tales that I have read in many years.

We are never really properly introduced to our protagonist beyond knowing that his surname is Me.  Some call him the Sellout, others Bonbon.  His own father, a self-styled ‘liberation’ psychologist treats his son as more of a valuable guinea pig, for such twisted experiments as re-enacting the Kitty Genovese incident, than as a treasured family member.  Father and son are residents of Dickens, California, a minority community that finds itself erased from the map in favor of white-washed generic sub-divisions.  Bonbon comes into his own in a unique quest to put Dickens back on the map while re-segregating the public schools, sending black passengers to the back of the bus, and yes, owning a slave.

As a huge fan of both Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle, I can honestly say that I did enjoy every bit of this book.  There was nothing particularly startling or unique about the structure of the novel, but it is a clever idea executed brilliantly.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 5/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 18/20

Book Worm’s Review: Unlike the others I found this a hard book to get into I struggled with the first 20% and then it suddenly picked up speed and became an enjoyable read. I did find the excessive use of the N word to be off putting but I can understand the reason for its inclusion. I am wondering if my initial response to the book is because I am not American and don’t live in America.

Once the book gets going it is very funny and totally politically incorrect, I know there is an important message about black lives and slavery but for me the highlight of the story was the personal relationships between the central characters. I also loved the fight to get Dickens back on the map.

I have not given full marks on character development, plot development and overall enjoyment due to the start of the book which was a struggle to get into.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality 5/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 1/2
Total 16/20

Andrew’s Review: A brilliant book by an incredibly talented writer. Kate’s synopsis of the book is spot on so I won’t go into that here. The book was certainly a challenge, both in terms of unpacking the prose (Beatty crafts incredibly dense sentences that are packed with meaning and witticisms that require a second, third, or fourth reading…) and processing the content. While ostensibly an absurdist satire, this book is a deep meditation on race, America, and identity. You will laugh out loud and then realize that you’ve really been punched in the gut.

Having read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me earlier this year, I spent much of my time debating whether The Sellout serves as a companion piece or a rebuttal. I still haven’t decided. Ultimately I enjoyed The Sellout more; not simply due to the humor and satire, but because Beatty seems not only to be addressing institutional racism, but also what it means to be American and a human being.

A note on my ratings: I deducted points for character and plot development as they are scarce at best.  However, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the book, or its efficacy. I highly recommend it.

Writing quality: 5/5
Originality 5/5
Character development: 2/4
Plot development 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total 17/20

Average score across all panelists: 17/20

Our Collective Ranking of Longlist books to date:
1. The Sellout by Paul Beatty
2. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Want to try it for yourself? You can buy your copy here: The Sellout

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? Does it belong on the longlist? Should it make the shortlist?

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tracy S #

    I read this one last year, and very much enjoyed it. Like Jen, I found myself laughing, then wondering if it was inappropriate. This is a deceptive book- the humor certainly is there, but it says so much more. I have to appreciate all the planning and thought that must have gone into this book, as well as the tight editing. Glad to see that everyone liked it!

    Liked by 1 person

    August 15, 2016
  2. Nicole R #

    Okay, it is official, this is being bumped up to #2 in my DTB queue as soon as I can finish Mists of Avalon.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 15, 2016
  3. “(Beatty crafts incredibly dense sentences that are packed with meaning and witticisms that require a second, third, or fourth reading…)” —- So true, Andrew. I listened to it, and caught many of those sentences, but know that a re-read will reveal more.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 15, 2016
  4. Anita Pomerantz #

    Loved these reviews everyone! And purchased the book through the link. I have a feeling this Man Booker series of posts is going to be very bad for my pocketbook.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 15, 2016
    • I suspect you will find at least a few more of them appealing. Ha ha, sorry. There’s always the library

      Like

      August 15, 2016
  5. Scott #

    Brilliant, profound, hilarious. A great story with both timeless and topical themes. Funny and poignant relationships (paternal, lover, platonic) and A LOT of fascinating examples relevant in this tough time of race relations in this country. It will definitely make Booker’s shortlist.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 16, 2016
    • Agree. I think this one is a no-brainer for the short list but I’ve been wrong before with the Man Booker.

      Like

      August 16, 2016
  6. Anita Pomerantz #

    Reading this one now . . .and honestly, so far (about a third of the way through), I just feel like I’m obviously not smart enough to “get it”. Pretty hard for me to admit that in public, but that’s just how I feel right now . . .hope I don’t still feel this way at the end.

    Like

    September 25, 2016

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