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.
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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Years ago, if you were like the rest of us, you were a little bit wacky and a little bit cynical, and that led us to Kurt Vonnegut’s books. He wrote as if he were a good-hearted anarchist, and he wrote plenty, and so we had a lot to read.
Now his books – and books about him – are experiencing a resurgence, as the link below attests.
If you haven’t read him before, he might seem a bit dated, but the edginess, the wit, the clamor against the modern insanities and inanities are still there.
And check out Phil Naessens’ interview with me about my book, A Place of Belonging, here.
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Are you sitting there this Labor Day weekend wishing you could be the next Mark Twain? The reincarnation of Kurt Vonnegut? Well, you need to know about satire:
the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the contextof contemporary politics and other topical issues.
It's been said that humor is a corrective social device – it presents imaginary or exaggerated situations that poke at falsity, whether in an individual's ego, or in the more collective social sense, but it does so without being seen as a diatribe or personal attack. In this way, for instance, a supremely vain person will see him/herself in a joke or witticism, will then consider his/her own behavior, and hopefully moderate it.
image via rferl.org
Politics is a fertile field for correction through satire, and Jon Stewart is possibly the best at it today. Forget for a few moments which side of today's ideological divide you fall on, and pay attention to how Stewart deals with satire in this interview.
See Bob's website here, and his Facebook fan page here.
Like Salinger, Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) has retained his hold on the U.S. imagination. That his The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn has been banned over the last century-plus – for varying reasons – would no doubt please the author.
The U.S. is a country that, in wholesale fashion, superficially espouses certain moral poses while violating them under the table. Twain was certainly not the first to recognize this, but he managed to make more of it than any other American writer, and that includes Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth.
Ron Powers' fine biography, Mark Twain – A Life, as well as the latest public offering, Who Is Mark Twain?, a volume of twenty-some Twain pieces, are testament to the constant need in this country for those who can, with wit, proclaim that the emperor has no clothes on.
Once in a while I have to brag on the writers who inspire me. Hansen is one of a shortlist of these – a writer of great range who can occasionally leave me slack-jawed at his turns-of-the phrase.
He's hardly a genre writer – and that too inspires me – moving between literate westerns, literary, fiction, historical fiction, and the humorous – despite the pub industry's insistence on handcuffing writers with one of these categories.
It is 1881. Jesse James, at the age of 34, is at the height of his fame and powers as a singularly successful outlaw. Robert Ford is the skittish younger brother of one of the James gang: he has made himself an expert on the gang, but his particular interest — his obsession — is Jesse James himself. Both drawn to him and frightened of him, the nineteen-year-old is uncertain whether he wants to serve James or destroy him or, somehow, become him. Never have these two men been portrayed and their saga explored with such poetry, such grim precision and such raw-boned feeling as Ron Hansen has brought to this masterful retelling. — from the jacket Wonderful. This is great storytelling, not undermined by our knowing how it turns out. The reader is driven — by story and by language and by history…the best blend of fiction and history I've read in a long while! — John Irving Vivid and sustained. — New York Times Book Review As he did in Desperadoes…Ron Hansen has turned low history into high art. This is a terrific book. — Newsday Recalls the literature of Americana by John Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, Willa Cather, and Hamlin Garland…. Hansen has broadened our perception of the West in much the same way as the best historians … and proven himself one of our finest stylists of American historical fiction. — The Christian Science Monitor Here is the James book. Let your prize $1,000 mint copy of Jake Spencer's Life and Career of Frank and Jesse James (published a week after the outlaw's death) repose peacefully on your shelf of scarce Americana. Put Hansen on your bedside table. — Richmond News-Leader Retells the familiar stories, making them fresh, finding in them an unresolvable mystery and tragedy about fame and ambition in America. This book is a wonderful achievement. — San Francisco Chronicle The language of Hansen's novel is dense and textured, requiring careful reading. The pleasure of the book is in the eloquence of its dialogue and description, which are both literary and historically appropriate. — A thickly textured novel [that] seems to hover deliberately between fiction and biography…. [Hansen has] crafted a very effective novel — Peter S Prescott, Newsweek A first-rate piece of craftsmanship that gives off the aura of legend without ever letting us succumb to any sentimental or ignorant aspects — Alan Cheuse, Los Angeles Times Book Review Hansen continues his tales of the real West with his imaginative retelling of the life of the most famous outlaw of them all, Jesse James, and of his death at the hands of the upstart Robert Ford. — Amazon.com