Paul Beatty Wins Biggest British Prize for a Scorchingly American Novel

In Paul Beatty’s sizzling bestseller The Sellout, no one is spared. Over the course of his compact satirical novel, Beatty skewers everyone from the Los Angeles police force (fairly), to the cast of Little Rascals (of all things), to Dave Eggers (teased for his brand of do-gooder California condescension). Notable for its daring engagement with issues of race and inequality in America, this novel also employs outrageous comedy. In addition to selling well in the US, to audiences for whom its issues are politically relevant, the novel also received praise internationally, most notably as the winner of one of the most prestigious British awards, The Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

The Sellout is the first American novel to win the The Booker. Every year since 1969, the coveted prize has been given for the year’s most notable novel by a citizen of Britain or the Commonwealth. Until 2014, only authors from the British Commonwealth, Zimbabwe, or Ireland could be nominated for the prize. But now, under the new guidelines, any English language novel can win. So, freshly eligible, Paul Beatty made history as the first American winner of the award. It is fitting that the first American novel to win the prize unabashedly takes on many of the biggest issues plaguing America today.

The novel opens in media res with the narrator (who is only ever referred to by his last name, Me) entering the Supreme Court, smoking a bowl and preparing for his case, aptly called “Me vs. The United States of America,” to be heard in the highest court of the land. We then enter his childhood. The protagonist was raised by his father, a prominent black sociologist, in Dickens, California on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Me hilariously recounts how his father tested every famous social and psychological experiment on him as a homeschooled kid.

The novel’s protagonist explodes notions of political correctness when he, now an adult and a farmer on the fringes of Los Angeles, finds himself enslaving a friend, putting up “Whites Only” signs in buses, and re-segregating the local high school. His actions, while on one hand outrageous to contemporary sensibilities, also shine a glaring light on the ways in which our country has not made substantive progress in terms of civil rights. With his friend/slave/the last living Little Rascal Hominy, his long lost love Marpessa, and the black scholars comprising the Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals Club in tow, Me shakes things up, elevating his struggling home of Dickens from obscurity onto the radar of the nation’s highest court.

Dense and packed with delightfully unlikely dialogue and scenarios, The Sellout is unlike any other satire I’ve read. Equally important for its commentary and amusing for its outrageousness, the novel has already started to expose internationally the harsh realities of gentrification, police brutality, and the legacies of slavery in America today. Beatty shines a bright and unremitting light on the fact that while America has made some progress in terms of civil rights, there is still a long, long way to go.

-Lora Kelley

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