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book review

Paul Beatty

The American writer Paul Beatty's new novel, The Sellout, is a complicated satire of contemporary race relations, the story of "Me," a black man raised as the guinea pig of a social-scientist father in the fictional township of Dickens, Calif., an "agrarian ghetto" on the periphery of present-day Los Angeles. Me describes the place where he was born and raised thus: "You know when you've entered the Farms, because the city sidewalks, along with your rims, car stereo, nerve and progressive voting record, will have vanished into air thick with the smell of cow manure and, if the wind is blowing the right direction – good weed."

Dickens is a failing place, a place once dominated by strict segregation policies, which America would sooner see wiped off the map than rehabilitated. Not even the existence of a black president can steer Dickens's forsaken denizens onto a promising path; the remnants of racial inequality remain embedded in the community.

After his father's death at the hands of the LAPD for a minor traffic infraction, Me uses the money that has been awarded to him in a wrongful-death settlement to pull his father's farmland property in Dickens out of foreclosure. Fast-forward five years, and widespread political corruption has led to the erasure of Dickens (though still inhabited by blacks and Mexicans, Dickens is wiped from the map, just like remnants of conscious racism in the complacent American psyche). Public services such as police and fire stations are shuttered; even City Hall's main phone number has been reassigned to a teenager's cell. Dickens's dire state feels eerily prescient in the wake of the civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., ignited by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, at the hands of a white police officer. In early March, the U.S. Justice Department released a scathing report which found systemic abuses of power at all levels of law enforcement in the city. Attorney-General Eric Holder said he was "prepared" to dismantle the police department and rebuild it from the ground up.

In Dickens, residents are left to fend for themselves. Me's father was once the beacon of the community – described as the "nigger whisperer," he was the negotiator called in to talk neighbours off a ledge whenever any of them "done lost they … mind" – and after his death, the neighbourhood looks to Me to fill his father's shoes. His first task is to save Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving member of The Little Rascals. Hominy gained minor celebrity status as a minstrel-like figure, garnering laughs through "slapstick racism." As an old man, his life has lost direction until he reunites with Me, someone who can finally fulfill the role of "Massa" in his self-imposed role as slave – Hominy basically does exactly what he wants while making faint gestures toward actually working.

It's not just slavery Me and Hominy reintroduce to Dickens, though; it's segregation, too. It appears piecemeal, first on a city bus, and then at the local middle school. But how does one segregate a "shanty town" already devoid of white people? Well, by creating the illusion of segregation. Me puts up signage announcing the development of a crosstown rival school for privileged white children to be built across from the predominantly black and Mexican middle school. By establishing competition, the children are forced to tackle their complacency and work hard to maintain the rights reaped after the Civil Rights Movement. It is as if Dickens needs to go back to move forward.

Hominy's minstrelsy is contrasted with a group of blackfaced sorority sisters who show up to the "L.A. Festival of Forbidden Cinema and Unabashedly Racist Animation," where Hominy is being recognized for his contributions to the oeuvre. It is a question of which is more toxic, a so-called postracial society that treats racism ironically, or a society that wears it on its sleeve?

Until Me overturns the order of things, implicit racism is deeply embedded in Dickens, where the citizens readily accept their order in American society. Why try when America has already set them up to fail?

Beatty isn't saying that segregation is the answer to the racial tension in the United States. Rather, it is the way we see ourselves and others that is at the core of the issue. Through his satire, the author flawlessly depicts what it means to exist in a culture saturated with negative stereotypes, where the adverse actions of a single individual can define a whole race. His wry observations and razor-sharp wit, delivered in a rhythmic stream-of-consciousness narrative, expose the ironies of America's supposedly postracial society by laying America bare. Perhaps the most topical novel of 2015, The Sellout will have readers re-evaluating their understanding of race and its marked significance on the lives of many Americans.

Safa Jinje is a writer and editor living in Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @Safajinje

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