Good Prose, No Win Satire

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The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

You might be in the den with some pals waiting for the Super Bowl to begin, and someone cracks a joke, then another. Then another. And you think, “Jokes and satire can’t be all that hard; maybe I could do a stand-up act, or write a satirical book.” So weeks later, it’s midnight and your idea for a novel full of witty things is a complete bust.
This, in a nutshell, is why Paul Beatty’s novel fails to complete its mission. More on that in a minute.
The author’s ambitious project here is intended to satirize nearly everyone and every institution in American life, and satirize he does. His story is of a young black man who is trying to live up to his father’s expectations as an understudy “nigger whisperer.,” i.e., someone who can calm even the most rambunctious denizens of Dickens, a black community on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The son isn’t much good at following in his father’s footsteps, so he determines to re-segregate Dickens. In the process one of his friends, Hominy Jenkins, aspires to be the young man’s slave and he sets out to accomplish that. So this is pretty much the story.

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The author has apparently decided, however, that he doesn’t need much of a story; his project is to leapfrog here and there to point out the foibles of whites through the coping mechanisms of Dickens’ black community. He easily accomplishes this, but at the expense of both races’ human nature. The “gets” are easy here; the old man’s network of ad hoc clients has abandoned him and the son isn’t anywhere near as talented as his dad at that whispering thing. So he reels from pillar to post in his quest to re-segregate Dickens and manages to be dragged before the U.S. Supreme Court for his effort.
The problem here isn’t that Beatty’s intent isn’t clear enough; rather, he sets up a mild desegregation meant to feed us and inform a precise servitude. The main issue is that his satire isn’t often funny; in fact it’s often mean spirited, with no obvious saving grace. Still, when he does manage to be amusing, his schtick is a downright thigh-slapper.
My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 

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