In these times, with unaccountability’s bubble about to burst—or simply fire up its thrusters and gondola elsewhere—no writer deserves closer study than Paul Beatty.
Linguistically daring, hilarious, and driven by a cascading prose style, his work is among the finest in America these past 50 years. As a semiotician of bullshit—one who can unpack what it hides —he’s in a league of his own. Who else has heard the bunk the nation talks to itself quite like him? Explored what it’s saying when people utter terms like “post-racial society,” like “debt,” like “first responders”?
“Listening to America these days,” muttered the hero of Beatty’s third novel, Slumberland, a DJ living in Berlin, “is like listening to the fallen King Lear using his royal gibberish to turn field mice and shadows into real enemies.”
Since his early days as a poet, performing at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and elsewhere, Beatty has always taken a hard look at the cover that the language of collective identity offers an individual. Unlike George Saunders, who renders a world out of this toxic syntax, Beatty has shown us the day-to-day plight of swimming through it for Black characters.
From the empty worship of negritude that rippled through drum and bass circuits in the late ’90s to the latest iteration of social science’s quest to put a label and a type on all, Beatty belongs in the long great tradition of American novelists who are pointing out that the individual cannot be typecast. Along the way, he gave us a string of memorable antiheroes—a basketball player, a DJ, an aspiring filmmaker turned local politician—who were vividly equivocal about the racial bargains their rise to fame often carried.
The Sellout, Beatty’s 2016 Man Booker Prize–winning novel, is the zenith of this driving exploration. It’s an extraordinary, outrageous, and warm book, a novel so capacious you can only marvel at how he fits it all in. Easily one of the best L.A. novels ever written, you can use it to follow city bus routes cross town, go to a Dodger game and grow verklempt, sniff the occasional Westside stank that creeps inland, feel the real pleasure of surfing in Malibu and the fury of living in a city where some think that’s all people do. It recalls the L.A. uprising of 1992, the matter-of-fact brutality of the LAPD, and luxuriates in the sprawl and heave of the place; pimp walks and drive-in-donut salons; the sadness of ex–child actors, zombie-strutting about; and the constant bustle of people trying to hustle up some kind of ladder.
He also knows the way all of this pulses like a giant beacon to social scientists to try and capture. To systematize.
The plot of the novel is absurd, and yet, given L.A.’s history, not at all. Our hero, nicknamed Bonbon, last name Me, has grown up in Dickens, a close approximation of the part of Compton zoned for agricultural use (which is why Black cowboys exist in South L.A.). Bonbon’s father, a community college sociologist, takes his 40-acres-and-a-mule life there literally, raising a shambolic group of livestock, all the while determined to better his son through a series of comical (were they not all of them real) experiments in aversion therapy to harmful ideas of Blackness.
Among the most potent of these “teachable moments” are Bonbon’s father’s existential errands that he undertakes as a volunteer talking Black people in distress out of tight spots before police tackle or shoot them. Most of them are high or somewhat mentally disturbed. Beatty uses another name for these encounters, which I can’t use here. There’s a terrible sadness beneath the humor in these scenes. For they are a dime a dozen in L.A.—and most cities—and there’s usually no one like Bonbon’s father there, and camera-phone footage of the decade has told anyone who didn’t know what often happens next.
In The Sellout, it’s not one of these destitute souls but Bonbon’s own father who pays the ultimate price, shot three times in the back by an undercover officer for an offhand comment Bonbon’s father makes upon approaching a conflagration he’d planned to untangle. With a $2 million wrongful-death settlement, Bonbon sets out to make good on his father’s plot of land, first growing square watermelons. “Think of the best watermelon you’ve ever had. Now add a hint of anise and brown sugar.” An actor and neighborhood friend named Hominy who’d played minstrel roles in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s reveals to Bonbon a taste for humiliation, and soon he’s coming by acting out the part of a slave. “He hiked up his pants and slipped into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer plantationese,” Bonbon notes.
Although this setup begs for a father-son book, The Sellout is not that. And while its excesses have earned it the label of satire, that too lets the reader off easy. Beatty’s observations are too protean and complex to fit into satire’s narrow chimney. “It dawned on me," Bonbon says, for example, in one scene upon discovering that Hominy and Rodney King share the same birthday, “that if places like Sedona, Arizona, have energy vortexes, mystical holy lands where visitors experience rejuvenation and spiritual awakenings, Los Angeles must have racism vortexes. Spots where visitors experience deep feelings of melancholy and ethnic worthlessness.”
Bonbon’s observation and Beatty’s great skill at expansion collide in this moment, giving birth to a quest. The city of Dickens, it turns out, often called a ghetto, and the kind of place where white people roll up their windows, has been bureaucratically wiped off the map. It literally no longer exists. Bonbon decides to bring it back, and to do so forces him to go in search of an answer as to why. While keeping his book circumscribed to Dickens, Beatty still lets his hero roam, though, which allows Beatty’s prose to get up and gallop in long, unfurling, brilliant paragraphs. In such a passage, Bonbon hops the bus to El Segundo because his high school flame now drives it, leading to the best public transport dance party in the history of literature.
There are so many other moments like this in The Sellout, where spaces reveal themselves to be the containers of unlikely—but because of that, earned—community. It’s a word Beatty uses uneasily, while acknowledging that without it we are nothing. So much of what made Dickens great to Bonbon has been burlesqued by culture to the point of nonsense, even he cannot figure out exactly what he is supposed to bring back from the dead.
This note of plangency is hard to dismiss from the ultimate power of The Sellout. How to live in a disappearing place that is being replaced by a simpler representation of what it never was? If that’s not a kind of erasure, what is? The novel, at its core, is an elegy to being of a place that matters, wherever that means to the person, but especially Black L.A., which has a deep, rich history that has been underestimated and reduced to a few caricatures. And because this is a Beatty novel, the book also pays tribute to—and pokes fun at—the ways that instinct draws people together.
Before he died, for instance, Bonbon’s father had created a group called the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a gathering of men concerned about their home who ply social science tools at trends that worry them over crullers and bear claws. At the first meeting described in The Sellout, one of the most feared local gangsters, King Cuz, arrives near the meeting’s end, and Beatty makes great comic hay out of a gangster come to talk spreadsheets of crime rates with old heads. But what’s not funny is why he’s there; King Cuz is part of the group because Bonbon’s father had talked King Cuz’s mother off the train tracks one day, rescuing her from sure death. Bonbon’s father didn’t do it to do a good deed, but because it was simply not a way to go. Not for somebody who surely was loved. Sometimes it seems his son makes a similar decision about his neighborhood.