Paul Beatty’s work is remarkably diverse, not only in subject matter but also in geographic scope and spread. His first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, a satirical bildungsroman that follows the life of a young poet, basketball star, and self-described “Negro demagogue,” takes place in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles. Beatty’s second novel, Tuff, is set in New York City, where Beatty moved in the ’80s. His third novel, Slumberland, takes us to West Berlin in the ’80s. And lastly, Beatty’s The Sellout—which Alta’s California Book Club will discuss at its February 18 gathering—marks his return to the fringes of California.
The Sellout, which was awarded the 2016 Man Booker Prize, follows the complex and outwardly outrageous events that land our unnamed narrator, a young Black man, before the Supreme Court. Following the death of the narrator’s father, the town in which the novel takes place is erased from maps, and, in protest, the narrator attempts to restore it by instituting segregation and enforcing a (white) color line.
In a 2015 Apogee interview, Beatty describes Los Angeles as a “weird” place; he goes on to say that in Compton, “people kept horses on their property, and goats, and cows. It’s bizarre, but I’ve seen it my whole life. Not every day, but every so often.”
It might be safe to say that Beatty’s ongoing fascination with the sociocultural contours of Black Los Angeles inspired him to write about its distinctive geography from a more eccentric and otherworldly perspective. We meet independent scholars who call themselves the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a character who thinks his only purpose left in life is to become the narrator’s slave, and others who travel on horseback in the urban wilds of Los Angeles.
But the questions remain: Why Los Angeles? What makes California so special for Black literature? And a simple answer is that California offers us a perspective of Black life that is unlike any found elsewhere in the United States, one in which there are stables right down the road from a doughnut shop. The environs of The Sellout might even be considered the intersection of the geocultural features of the American South, Midwest, and East Coast, blending the pastoral with the urban because the pastoral is within the urban.
Beatty recognizes these oddities, along with their racialized dimensions, and is able to summon and poke at them, not simply for jest but for critical reflection, one that we should all participate in.
To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Beatty on February 18, click here.
We hope you’ve been enjoying The Sellout. As a sneak peek for our upcoming gathering, here is a close reading of the first paragraph. Alta
GANGSTERS AND DRIFTERS
Tod Goldberg’s latest collection, The Low Desert, follows the lives of con men, gangsters, and drifters, showcasing the distinctive landscape of Southern California. In his review of the book, Richard Rayner considers how Goldberg finds grace and desperation in his narratives. Alta
“I feel fine. Slightly bored, but fine,” says writer Joan Didion. Here’s how she has been coping during the pandemic. Time
California musician Ellen Harper reflects on growing up among folk musicians and how folk is an ever-changing and living art form. Literary Hub
Lydia Kiesling, author of the highly acclaimed novel The Golden State, recommends the 40-year-old book that has made her a better parent. New York Times
“Having stepped into stories in every state, I’ve read more than 58 accounts of what it means to inhabit this country. Bearing witness to what frames an American identity has been a humbling, often unexpected experience,” says Heather John Fogarty, who embarked on a project to read across America. Read more to learn her key takeaways. Los Angeles Times
L.A. TO CHICAGO
CBC host John Freeman charts how Granta became a must-read global literary magazine, featured at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the Chicago Cultural Center, and elsewhere. Asymptote Journal
We are sending a huge congratulations to our first CBC author, C Pam Zhang, for being named a finalist for the 2020 National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best First Book. National Book Critics Circle
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