Paul Beatty’s hilariously funny, satirical novel The Sellout [London: Oneworld, 2016] has just won this year’s Man Booker Prize. The point of good satire is that it not only pokes absurd fun at its subject but by illuminating it from a completely different angle makes us review and revise our own ideas. Imagine a present-day black farmer in a district of Los Angeles who, unintended, becomes a slave owner but whose slave does little or no work. The farmer then sees the merits of reintroducing racial segregation. He creates a hoarding advertising a non-existent high quality private school on land opposite the low-achieving essentially non-white public school with the effect that that school rises to the looming challenge and becomes so good that white kids try to gain admission and are turned away! Paul Beatty has written a work of contemporary fiction that reveals greater truths and which stands comparison with Tristram Shandy and Animal Farm.
As the book opens, the narrator whose girl-friend calls him Bonbon, is in the dock in the Supreme Court, arraigned for what he has done. The story unfolds in flashbacks of increasingly surrealistic satire with a cast of secondary characters who are a joy to meet. As well as them there is the debating society known as the Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals, all Afro-Americans themselves but who label themselves with the N-word. That word is used more often in this book than in the whole of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn put together.
The effect of reading The Sellout is cumulative and, who knows, maybe addictive. A ‘funny’ book hasn’t won the Man Booker since Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. It was worth waiting for this one.