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The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Three years after the Man Booker Prize was opened up to all novels written in English and published in the UK – regardless of whether they were British, Irish, Commonwealth or from, say, Micronesia – the Americans finally have a winner: Paul Beatty with The Sellout. The swamping of the prize by the big names of US fiction confidently predicted by assorted naysayers has yet to occur (there were only two Americans on the shortlist of six) but rather Beatty has shown himself to be a very Man Booker kind of writer – unshowy, arriving with acclaim but without fanfare but with a quality, originality and moral seriousness that is unmistakable.

Few people saw his win coming. Although Beatty (pronounced Batey, like Warren) has received numerous positive reviews, admiring comment and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in America the bookies nevertheless had him with middling odds, perhaps feeling that his satire of race relations set in near future Los Angeles might be too just American and too political. Not so, said Amanda Foreman, chair of the judges. The Sellout, she proclaimed, was simply ‘the best book of 2016’. When asked what ‘best’ meant she defined it as a combination of attributes: ‘Aesthetic, quality and depth of ideas, craftsmanship of writing, and whether the novel transports the reader.’

The judges met for four hours to thrash out such attributes with, apparently, three of the shortlisted books in particular deserving of extra consideration. The decision, however, was unanimous. There were no disagreements just passionate argument: ‘The Man Booker,’ Foreman noted, ‘is only as good as the commitment of its judges.’

Beatty is the second black writer in a row, after Marlon James, to win the prize and his book, which deals in part with modern slavery, seems especially pertinent in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement. Politics was not though a part of the judges’ thinking. The novel was written before the current state of race relations in America became quite so parlous and, said Foreman, it is timely not because of the recent flashpoints or because the prize announcement comes two weeks before the US election but ‘because of the way it deals with social problems’. And although Foreman lived in America for many years she and the judges felt the book transcends nationality.

The Sellout, in her words, is ‘one of those rare books able to take satire – itself a very difficult form – and use it to plunge into the heart of American society’. Beatty himself she likens to Swift and Twain in his ability to ‘eviscerate every sacred cow of society and to do so in a way that makes the reader laugh but is also painful’. Full marks too to Foreman for not once using the word ‘dystopia’.

The book centres on an African-American man, Bonbon – the sellout of the title – on trial for trying to reinstitute slavery and segregation in a run-down district of LA in an attempt at regaining civic order. Race is a dangerous word and, as Foreman acknowledged, ‘the truth is rarely pretty’ but what makes Beatty’s treatment of this intractable problem so special, she says, is that ‘he nails the reader to the cross and while you are being nailed you are being tickled’. Beatty is not a shouty writer but one ‘revelling in the power of their own writing and as a result the novel is a first class piece of literary fiction wrapped up in a shawl of humour’ (Foreman showing her own literary credentials here with her imagery). Beatty has professed himself ‘surprised that everybody keeps calling The Sellout a comic novel’.

The Sellout is 54-year-old Beatty’s fourth novel and he also written two books of poetry. So the prize goes to an established and wide-ranging writer who has learnt his craft. What his previous experience won’t have taught him though is how to deal with the fame that comes with winning the prize. His name, for example, will feature on a Royal Mail postmark that will be stamped on millions of letters in the next few days. Not many Americans – not many living writers – can claim such distinction.

Beatty’s win is also a remarkable triumph for the book’s publisher, Oneworld. A small independent in a world of publishing conglomerates, this is Oneworld’s second MB win on the trot (they are Marlon James’s publisher too). James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings has gone on to sell nearly half a million copies in the UK and US alone. How America will react to the coronation of this uncomfortable look at what’s been swept under its carpets will be one of the many fascinations around Beatty and his book in the year to come.

Paul Beatty