Excerpt: ‘The Sellout’

In this excerpt from the California Book Club’s February 2021 pick, author Paul Beatty’s narrator finds himself squirming in Washington, D.C.

paul beatty, the sellout
Steve Carroll

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 snuck 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 the 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.

Summoned here by an officious-looking envelope stamped important! in large, sweepstakes-red letters, I haven’t stopped squirming since I arrived in this city.

“Dear Sir,” the letter read.

“Congratulations, you may already be a winner! Your case has been selected from hundreds of other appellate cases to be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States of America. What a glorious honor! It’s highly recommended that you arrive at least two hours early for your hearing scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on the morning of March 19, the year of our Lord…” The letter closed with directions to the Supreme Court building from the airport, the train station, I-95, and a set of clip-out coupons to various attractions, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and the like. There was no signature. It simply ended…

Sincerely yours,
The People of the United States of America

Washington, D.C., with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms). Yesterday afternoon, like some sandal-shod Ethiop from the sticks of the darkest of the Los Angeles jungles, I ventured from the hotel and joined the hajj of blue-jeaned yokels that paraded slowly and patriotically past the empire’s historic landmarks. I stared in awe at the Lincoln Memorial. If Honest Abe had come to life and somehow managed to lift his bony 23-foot, 4-inch frame from his throne, what would he say? What would he do? Would he break-dance? Would he pitch pennies against the curbside? Would he read the paper and see that the Union he saved was now a dysfunctional plutocracy, that the people he freed were now slaves to rhythm, rap, and predatory lending, and that today his skill set would be better suited to the basketball court than the White House? There he could catch the rock on the break, pull up for a bearded three-pointer, hold the pose, and talk shit as the ball popped the net. The Great Emancipator, you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him. 

Excerpted from The Sellout: A Novel, by Paul Beatty, with permission of the publisher, Picador.

Picador USA

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Picador USA Bookshop.org

Paul Beatty is the author of the novels Tuff, Slumberland, and The White Boy Shuffle.
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