I won’t pretend that I understood the whole book. Every sentence demanded reflection, as every sentence was ambiguous, filled with double entendres and puns, some of which I did not quite comprehend immediately, and some I never quite understood. Still, written with wit and charm, eloquence and fluidity, it is nothing, if not brilliant.
Once there was a fictional community called Dickens which had slowly devolved into nothing but a few streets with no identity. Our main character and narrator, nicknamed The Sellout, was raised (if you can believe it), on an urban farm in a ghetto in Los Angeles, by his now deceased Social Scientist father (buried illegally on the farm), who bombarded him with humiliating, social experiments during his formative years, to expose the various hypocrisies of life. His father was also a “black whisperer” often called upon in moments of crisis to restore calm and order. The Sellout took over his job, but was not as effective since his personality was not as large as his father’s. He also works the farm growing vegetables and fruits, raising and nurturing animals, and sharing the results of his efforts with the residents, particularly his Satsumas, a mandarin orange breed renowned for their juice and loved by all. The Sellout conceived of the idea to revive Dickens, now referred to as a “locale”, with no name on any map. He wanted to bring Dickens back to its “former glory”, and with Dickens, he wanted to also bring back segregation. He encountered both support and opposition.
When this novel opens, our narrator has been arrested and accused of violating constitutionally protected civil rights. The case has risen to the upper levels of the court system and is now at the very pinnacle, The Supreme Court. From there it works backwards to explain the reason for the criminal charge and the trial. In the course of his efforts to resurrect the town and segregation, he was aided by his “slave”, Hominy, who was a former Little Rascal of television fame. Among other things, they had drawn lines around the community to define its boundaries, and had displayed racist signs demanding space for whites only in various places. The Sellout had created a posh private school for whites, in the heart of Dickens, simply by putting up a sign for it. The idea of it had caught on, and it was spurring the residents to be more responsible, work harder and to be greater achievers. His very violations of the laws of the land seemed to have actually promoted civil rights by creating an environment where everyone seemed to know what was expected of them and had given them a desire to conform and succeed. So the court had a conundrum on its hands. His violations had accomplished what the amendments had never done.
For me, it wasn’t until the last few pages that the book became whole, with a clear message. It was writ large by the author in a sentence in a paragraph near the end: “he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Subtly and overtly, humorously and seriously, he highlights everything that is wrong with society, and he does it by blindsiding the reader with allusions. Although he maligns almost everyone and every accepted more, in some way, he also rarely directly names those he mocks or praise, rather he alludes to them, like his reference to the black dude in the White House.
He exposes the false promises made by those in power, the unjust justice department; he ridicules the titles and subject matter of books as in “The Adventures of Tom Soarer”, the shortcomings of ghetto life and the ghetto mentality, drugs, infidelity and crime, and the broken system of education, among other things too numerous to mention. Black privilege is exploited and white privilege is mocked. There will often be a smile on your lips and even an occasional laugh out loud moment, but then the reader will be brought back to earth by the double meanings and the reality that they represent. In short, he turns all accepted mores inside out and although I didn’t understand all of it, I was never bored, and even when overwhelmed by the sometimes convoluted messages and ideations, I was always drawn back to it. In The Sellout and in Dickens, we see the failures and successes of society as the author pokes fun at and recasts all of life’s events with often bizarre examples which force the reader to confront the very issue he is lampooning with sincere and serious thoughtfulness. Racism is totally exposed on all fronts.
Beatty exposes society’s ills, the behavior of the guilty and the innocent, and in so doing, he reopens the wounds of society with deliberateness and then seems to also offer a pathway to, or the possibility of, its healing.