Yes, the Booker Prize winning The Sellout is a funny book, a book that makes you laugh (sometimes guiltily), a stinging satire devoid of political correctness that goes to the heart of America’s race relation problems. Sadly, it’s also a novel that somehow lacks direction; that appears to go nowhere, in which the author occasionally seems to revel in his own jokes. It’s packed with cultural references that I struggled to understand and I suspect I’m not the only one. For the last reason alone, it’s a puzzling choice as the first American winner of the British based Booker Prize since their rules were changed to include American books a few years ago.
The premise is original and promising. As the book starts, the narrator named Me is in the U.S. Supreme Court accused of keeping a black slave and reinstating racial segregation. Me is a black resident of Dickens, an inner city area of L.A. so destitute, poor and crime ridden that the city simply decides to erase it from the map.
Me has had an unorthodox childhood, raised by a twisted therapist single father who conducts cruel psychological experiments on his own son. His father is also a community figure who specialises in defusing violent situations be it domestic violence or robberies. When the father is ‘accidentally’ killed by the police in yet another unprovoked police killing, Me decides to take matters into his own hands, starting by enslaving a black ex-film star.
The first part of this book (with the exception of the first chapter which felt like being machined gunned by jokes) is funny and enjoyable. But after a hundred pages or so it stalls. Rather than a coherent story it becomes a string of jokes whose sum does not make a good novel. It’s a great shame as it raises some uncomfortable truths about American society in an original, gloves-off way that had the potential to deliver a real punch.
The Sellout is published by Oneworld, 288 pages.