Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

An urban farmer comes up with a plan to help his people

Bonbon, homeschooled by his black studies professor father, the last (or only) farmer in Dickens, a blighted neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, finds himself in a funk after his dad is shot during a routine traffic stop and bleeds to death on the street. Reluctant slave owner of the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins, and spurned lover of MTA bus driver intellectual Marpessa Dawson, Bonbon decides that the way to put Dickens back on the map and inspire its underachieving black and Mexican populace is to resegregate. Strangely enough, his plan begins to work, but not before outraging the country. The book opens and closes with Bonbon at the Supreme Court, defending his case.

This book rubs the reader’s face in outrageous racial stereotypes (as well as perhaps some subtle ones – significant chunks of the book are in fairly hilarious Latin). The meager oft mislaid plot is secondary to the poetic riffing on what it means to be black, to be an Angeleno, to be the child of a nutty professor trying to forcibly mold a child free of internalized white judgments. And also what it means to be a black man in a racist society. Or an amazing farmer who makes friends all over town by growing the sweetest oranges and the most kaleidoscopic weed.

The cadences are amazing – this book must have taken forever to write. The elaborately crazy sentences force the reader to slow down, to linger, to take pleasure. For the most part the imagery is beautiful, despite Bonbon’s journey always bumping him against unpleasant racist realities.  I loved the scene where Marpessa takes her newly resegregated city bus and drives it up Pacific Coast Highway onto the beach so that Bonbon and Hominy and the night shift at Jack-in-the-Box can go skinny dipping. This truly is a book about Los Angeles – how its beauty is a secret pleasure enjoyed by its laid back inhabitants. There’s freeway rides in here and surfing and the beans at Tito’s Tacos.

If you laugh at the outlandish stereotyping, are you racist? Maybe there’s a scene in the book that addresses that – maybe the answer is yes. Also, I wasn’t sure about the title – who’s selling out? Bonbon is nicknamed The Sellout by Foy Chesire, his father’s wealthy nemesis, who rewrites classic books for African Americans, such as Measured Expectations. But isn’t Foy is the real sellout?

This would make a great movie with some great scenes of LA but that would never happen.

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