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The Great Blacksby

By (May 1, 2015) No Comment

The Selloutbeattysellout
By Paul Beatty
FSG, 2015

If Richard Pryor had lived much longer, spent time in the ghettos of L.A. County, and had any interest in writing a novel, he might have come up with a book like The Sellout, the latest novel from Paul Beatty, which reads for the span of its almost 300 pages like top-shelf, late-career, stand-up comedy: unflinching, unforgiving, unmitigated, unkempt, and stuffed full of laughs that catch in your throat. The book is embarrassingly good, meaning that if you read it like I did, alongside your lunch for one, you’ll get plenty of stares.

That’s because the book is hilarious, and it’s hilarious by way of being unapologetically filthy on every page. This filth is manifest in two interrelated areas: its use of language and and its annihilatingly irreverent approach to race. The book takes the contemporary black experience in America and puts it inside a uranium centrifuge and flips the switch until every particle has been weaponized. No person leaves the book uncontaminated.

For a representative paragraph, here’s the narrator, nicknamed Bonbon, explaining why he’s not actually attracted to white girls:

I balked at telling her about my father locking my head into the tachistoscope and for three hours flashing split-second images of the forbidden fruit of his era, pinups and Playboy centerfolds, in my face. Bettie Page, Betty Grable, Barbra Streisand, Twiggy, Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn, Sophia Loren; then he’d force ipecac and okra smoothies down my throat. I’d vomit my guts out while he blasted Buffy Saint-Marie and Linda Ronstadt on the stereo. The visual stimuli worked, but the auditory stuff didn’t take. To this day, whenever I’m feeling down and troubled, I crank Rikki Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King from the stereo, all of who were shouting out California way before Biggie, Tupac, or any of the Ice Coons. But if you look carefully, and the light is just right, you can see the afterimages of Barbi Benton’s naked centerfold burned into my pupils as if they were discount plasma TVs.

Here’s Bonbon retelling his erstwhile girlfriend’s rant about black literature:

‘I’m so fucking tired of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, cafe au lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown!’ How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books!’

There are two words in particular that get a deft workout in these pages. The first one begins with the letter N, and the second, much more family-friendly word is “motherfucker.” In short, these laughs are not entirely painless: they roll in with a gleeful regularity but tug at your shins with an undertow of guilt that you’re laughing at this. And that’s because there’s no liberal or conservative bromide that doesn’t get punched directly in the solar plexus over the course of this book. You end up laughing constantly but often you end up implicated by the joke in some way. The book has even anticipated different responses by different audiences. For example, there’s a bit where a white couple joins the audience at an otherwise all-black stand-up performance, and they’re told by the performer to get out, posthaste, that this is not “their thing”—though even this moment is freighted with its own moral ambiguity. So not only are the jokes problematic; who does the laughing becomes problematic as well.

The Sellout is narrated by Bonbon (also referred to by some characters as “the Sellout”), a young black man who lives in Dickens, an urban ghetto in Los Angeles County. He’s the son of a visionary but mostly unknown psychologist who conducted brutal experiments and routines of indoctrination upon his only child. Although Dickens was originally a farming community, Bonbon is the only one still farming his plot of land, and the bulk of the plot kicks into gear when his father is shot “by accident” after being stopped by the police. Shortly after his father dies, Dickens is erased off the map, and our narrator spends the rest of the novel trying to make everyone remember the past: the return of Dickens as an actual place, the recognition of his father’s rightful legacy, the return of his girlfriend Marpessa who went and married a washed-up rapper who now acts in a Law & Order-like police procedural, and the history of racism that doesn’t go away just because someone proclaims we now live in a post-racial society.

He does this first by re-drawing the lines of Dickens and re-segregating it. He segregates Marpessa’s city bus, he hands out “no whites allowed” signs for local establishments, he segregates the local hospital. He even goes so far as to segregate the city’s middle school by erecting a gigantic poster of a completely fake, whites-only school across the street. The weird punchline is that all of his efforts to re-segregate the city make life there paradoxically better: “Ever since you put those signs up, Marpessa’s bus is the safest place in the city,” Charisma, the principal of the school, tells him. Bonbon has an epiphany:

Charisma had intuitively grasped the psychological subtleties of my plan even as it was just starting to make sense to me. She understood the colored person’s desire for the domineering white presence, which the Wheaton Academy represented. Because she knew that even in these times of racial equality, when someone whiter than us, richer than us, blacker than us, Chineser than us, better than us, whatever than us, comes around throwing their equality in our faces, it brings out our need to impress, to behave, to tuck in our shirts, do our homework, show up on time, make our free throws, teach and prove our self-worth in hopes that we won’t be fired, arrested, or trucked away and shot.

littlerascalsBonbon does this resegregation with the help of his friend Hominy Jenkins, who is the last surviving member of the Little Rascals. Hominy is Dickens’ sole celebrity resident, who’s become even more addled than normal since the town ceased to exist and his fans can no longer locate him. Hominy is most comfortable, most himself, when he is playing the role of the quintessential, pre-Civil Rights era American film stereotype of a black character, a child actor who began as a Buckwheat understudy and has stayed in the role all his life. In fact, after Bonbon saves Hominy mid-suicide attempt, Hominy repays his debt by insistently becoming Bonbon’s slave. The result is that Bonbon becomes a kind of inverted parody of a white plantation owner—a photo negative of the American past.

On the surface, the contemporary writer Beatty reminds me the most of is Sam Lipsyte, whose novels are also outlandish and terribly funny orchestrations of satirical riffs. But the humor here is obviously aimed at different targets and consequently more abrasive. The result is that the book reads like Philip OperationShylockRoth Roth circa Operation Shylock, except funnier. Whereas that Roth novel is concerned with Israel, the American experience of being a Jew, and the experience of being Philip Roth in the middle of it all, Beatty’s book is closer to the ground of contemporary American life, post-Obama presidency. The death of Bonbon’s father in particular has an eerie, prophetic timeliness to it here in 2015 America, though it’s possible that seeing his “accidental” shooting by the police as “timely” is, in a sense, part of the problem—merely an admission of whitened blindness, an admission of a larger demographic failure to pay attention.

The book is a compendium of riffs that manages to engage these contemporary burdens with a thrifty, nonchalant jujitsu. Some of the best bits include: the one when the narrator and Hominy decide to segregate the local hospital, the one when Bonbon castrates a calf at the middle school’s career day, the one when Bonbon attempts to select an appropriate sister city for Dickens (Juarez, Chernobyl, etc.), the one with Hominy’s birthday cruise on Marpessa’s bus, and any bit that involves Roy Cheshire— rival to Bonbon’s father and the closest thing to a villain, a kind of Cornel West-ish, steeple-fingered, public intellectual, who’s constantly rewriting American classics to make them more racially palatable (The Great Blacksby, The Point Guard in the Rye, and The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protege, White Brother Huckleberry Finn as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit) and who at the novel’s end stages a reverse Little Rock Nine in an attempt to integrate Dickens’ freshly segregated middle school.

By way of example, here’s Bonbon describing one of his agricultural innovations:

Although they’re not hard to grow, and I’ve been selling them for years, folks still go crazy at the sight of a square watermelon. And like the black president, you’d think that after three years of looking at a dude in a suit deliver the State of the Union address, you’d get used to square watermelons, but somehow you never do. The size of a decent Christmas gift, I wrap the green melons in bright gold ribbons. The pyramidal shapes are big sellers also, and around Easter I sell bunny rabbit–shaped ones that I’ve genetically altered so that if you squint, the dark lines in the rind spell out Jesus Saves. Those I can’t keep on the wagon. But it’s the taste that keeps them coming back. Think of the best watermelon you’ve ever had. Now add a hint of anise and brown sugar. Seeds that you’re reluctant to spit out because they cool your mouth like the the last sweet remnants of a cola-covered ice cube melting on the tip of your tongue. I’ve never seen it, but they say people have bitten into my watermelon and fainted straightaway. That paramedics fresh from CPR rescues of customers nearly drowned in six inches of blue backyard plastic wading pool water don’t ask about heatstroke or a family history of heart disease. Their faces covered in sticky red remnants of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation nectar, their cheeks freckled with black seeds, they stop licking their lips only long enough to ask, “Where did you get the watermelon?” Sometimes, when I’m in an unfamiliar neighborhood, looking for a stray goat on the Latino side of Harris Avenue, a click of pee-wees fresh out of cholo school, their newly shorn scalps gleaming in the sun, will step to me, grab me by the shoulders, and with a forceful reverence say, “Por la sandia . . . gracias.”

Of course, there are trade-offs. The book has a plot but it’s a somewhat rickety delivery mechanism for the set pieces. There are several topics that are brought up but never really pay off—Bonbon’s sexual timidity, a recurring reference to the eternal salvation of a black Chinese restaurant, and the actual climactic Supreme Court scene, where Bonbon’s crimes against humanity are laid out in their full, galling blasphemy. The slowest part of the book by far is the prologue, which contains most of the Supreme Court action. At the end of the book, when the plot catches up with its climax, Bonbon literally escapes from court’s chambers before anything beyond the preliminary surface satire can occur. In other words, the book builds a perfect trap for itself which it escapes too easily. And though by the end, Dickens is firmly re-established and Bonbon is reunited with Marpessa, the book doesn’t so much end as simply stop, which is okay. One doesn’t want to be so painfully dramaturgical with a book this funny. Jokes are, in a way, antithetical to narrative. If Bonbon were to stare out a high window and pronounce lyrically on all he surveyed at the end of the book, it would feel like the ultimate lie. But given the topics and the relentless destruction of sanctimony, I was pryornaturally jonesing for a lesson at the end. Satire of this velocity generates the craving for solutions, like certain foods seem to demand beer. It’s a consequence of its success.

A recent review by Jeet Heer in the New Republic of a new biography of Richard Pryor is useful in understanding Beatty’s book. I realize that trotting out Pryor to do my heavy cultural lifting is cheating in a way, but Heer makes a good point. He says that one of the marks of Pryor’s genius was that his humor deliberately made his audience uncomfortable. That, in a way, his humor was difficult. It was not escapist. In its best moments, Beatty’s book has the same brackish slant on life, and its undiluted indeterminacy is what makes it unique. There’s no way to assimilate this humor into your comfortable life, because this is what life is actually like: it gives you laughs but shows its teeth.

Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He lives in Jackson, Mississippi.