Bustin’ up the Chiffarobe

Alex Abramovich

  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty
    Farrar, Straus, 288 pp, £17.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 374 26050 7

The pure products of America go crazy, William Carlos Williams wrote, but he was only half right: America’s crazy, and so sometimes its pure products go sane. Consider the eponymous narrator of Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout. When we first meet him, in the Supreme Court’s ‘cavernous chambers’, the sellout’s hands are cuffed behind his back. His right to silence ‘long since waived’, he sits in a ‘thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks’. ‘This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man,’ he says,

but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. But here I am.

What are the charges? The sellout wanted to re-segregate Dickens, his small hometown on the outskirts of Los Angeles, thereby violating the fourteenth amendment to the US constitution. Also, he’s come to own a slave, thereby violating the thirteenth. ‘In summation,’ he explains, he’s accused ‘of everything from desecration of the Homeland to conspiracy to upset the apple cart just when things were going so well’.

How did we get here? The sellout was raised by a single father, a psychology professor who moonlighted as the local ‘Nigger Whisperer’, talking suicidal neighbours out of trees, off freeway overpasses, down from ledges of one sort or another. All in all, the father explained, America’s black community was ‘a lot like him – ABD’. ‘All but dissertation?’ ‘All but defeated.’

At home, there were experiments. ‘I wasn’t fed,’ the sellout recalls, ‘I was presented with lukewarm appetitive stimuli. I wasn’t punished, but broken of my unconditioned reflexes. I wasn’t loved, but brought up in an atmosphere of calculated intimacy and intense levels of commitment.’ A scene from his infancy: his father put toy police cars, Nixon campaign badges and a copy of the Economist into his crib, put Lynyrd Skynrd on the living-room stereo, pulled out a .38 Special, and fired a few rounds into the ceiling while shouting: ‘Nigger, go back to Africa!’ ‘To this day,’ the sellout says, ‘I have a strange affinity for Neil Young, and whenever I have trouble sleeping, I don’t listen to recorded rainstorms or crashing waves but to the Watergate tapes.’ (‘Now your crosses/Are burning fast,’ Young sang in ‘Southern Man’, to which the Skynyrd replied: ‘Hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don’t need him round, anyhow.’)

When he was twenty the sellout came across a group of detectives, huddled around the bloodied corpse of a man who’d been shot in the back, four times, by the cops. The man was his father. He dipped a hand in the blood. ‘Not hot,’ he says, surprised, or ‘roiling with the black anger and lifelong frustration of a decent, albeit slightly crazy man who never became what he thought he was.’

One day, the sellout found that Dickens itself had been wiped from the map:

There was no loud send-off. Dickens didn’t go out with a bang like Nagasaki, Sodom and Gomorrah, and my dad. It was quietly removed like those towns that vanished from maps of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, atomic accident by atomic accident. But the city of Dickens’s disappearance was no accident. It was part of a blatant conspiracy by the surrounding, increasingly affluent, two-car-garage communities to keep their property values up and their blood pressures down.

I’m quoting at length here to give a sense of the sentences, which are densely referential without being dense, cumulative but not cluttered. Beatty began his career as a poet, though he is best known for his prose (The Sellout is his fourth novel) and for editing an excellent and unorthodox anthology of African-American humour called Hokum (2006), which veers from Zora Neale Hurston and Ishmael Reed to Malcolm X and Mike Tyson’s pronouncements (‘I guess I’m gonna fade into Bolivian,’ the boxer said after losing to Lennox Lewis). Beatty still writes with a poet’s attention to sound and surprise, and at his best, which is most of the time, he is as funny and poignant as anything in his anthology, zigzagging from perfect one-liners – ‘For the poor every day is casual Friday,’ a lawyer’s business card reads – to riffs like this one, set in Washington’s National Zoological Park:

I stood in front of the primate cage listening to a woman marvel at how ‘presidential’ the four-hundred-pound gorilla looked sitting astride a shorn oaken limb, keeping a watchful eye over his caged brood. When her boyfriend, his finger tapping the informational placard, pointed out the ‘presidential’ silverback’s name coincidentally was Baraka, the woman laughed aloud, until she saw me, the other four-hundred-pound gorilla in the room, stuffing something that might have been the last of a Big Stick popsicle or a Chiquita banana in my mouth. Then she became disconsolate, crying and apologising for having spoken her mind and having been born. ‘Some of my best friends are monkeys,’ she said accidentally. It was my turn to laugh. I understood where she was coming from. The whole city’s a Freudian slip of the tongue, a concrete hard-on for America’s deeds and misdeeds. Slavery? Manifest Destiny? Laverne & Shirley? Standing by idly while Germany tried to kill every Jew in Europe? Why some of my best friends are the Museum of African Art, the Holocaust Museum, the Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of Women in the Arts. And furthermore, I’ll have you know, my sister’s daughter is married to an orangutan.

Beatty’s novels are full of such passages. But The Sellout is his best work, and the best novel I’ve read in ages, because its satire cuts so close to the moment that, after a while, it begins to look like straight reportage. There is the overarching joke: what does it mean to ‘re-segregate’ a place that was never desegregated? There’s also the comic sadness of the characters, and the way they come to mirror one another: Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving member of the Little Rascals, becomes the sellout’s slave. (The Little Rascals were the child stars of Hal Roach’s Our Gang comedy shorts in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.) ‘Massa,’ Hominy says, ‘sometimes we just have to accept who we are and act accordingly. I’m a slave. That’s who I am. It’s the role I was born to play. A slave who just also happens to be an actor. But being black ain’t method acting. Lee Strasberg could teach you how to be a tree, but he couldn’t teach you how to be a nigger.’ Foy Cheshire, a talkshow host, rewrites Mark Twain, replacing the ‘n-word’ with ‘warrior’, and the word ‘slave’ with ‘dark-skinned volunteer’, and comes up with The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit. King Cuz, a gang-banger, is crafty enough to apply for Nato membership, and so sensitive and so dangerous that no one in Dickens will even speak to him, except to say, ‘No doubt, nigger’:

‘Everybody else is in Nato. Why not the Crips? You going to tell me we wouldn’t kick the shit out of Estonia?’

‘No doubt, nigger.’

Midway through, we begin to sense that many of the characters who crowd the narrative are like Hominy Jenkins, in and out of blackface, whether they know it or not. For Hominy himself, ‘blackface isn’t racism. It’s just common sense,’ while white minstrelsy is nothing more than ‘a reluctant acknowledgment that unless you happen to be really black, being “black” is the closest a person can get to true freedom’.

As far as Beatty’s concerned, there’s no ‘solution’ to the ‘race problem’. ‘We get it all wrong,’ he said last year in a television interview. ‘We think that there’s this weird, utopian endgame – to life, not just racial politics. For me, it’s a weird way to live life … A thing I’ve been hearing about lately is, “Oh, it’s hard to talk about race. We can’t have the discussion.” I’m like, what does that really mean? I don’t understand what that discussion is, where this metaphorical table is – “We’ve got to come to the table”? I don’t know where these tables are.’

Insofar as there is a solution, it just might be divorce – which Beatty argued for, in a roundabout way, in his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle – born of irreconcilable differences. This is not a popular argument in America, though it once was. (These days, you come across it, mostly, in hiphop: ‘They used to call me “negro”/After all this time, I’m still bustin’ up the chiffarobe,’ Ice Cube rapped in a couplet that wasn’t trotted out during the recent rumpus over Harper Lee.) It isn’t an unreasonable one. In the end, Beatty’s sellout argues most cogently for a reality-based assessment of the actual situation, which is not, and never has been, and probably never will be OK.

And so, as the novel draws to its close, we find ourselves back in the Supreme Court’s cavernous chambers. ‘In neighbourhoods like the one I grew up in,’ the sellout says,

places that are poor in praxis but rich in rhetoric, the homies have a saying – I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six. It’s a maxim, an oft-repeated rap lyric, a last-ditch rock and a hard place algorithm that on the surface is about faith in the system but in reality means shoot first, put your faith in the public defender, and be thankful you still have your health. I’m not all that streetwise, but to my knowledge there’s no appellate court corollary. I’ve never heard a corner store roughneck take a sip of malt liquor and say, ‘I’d rather be reviewed by nine than arbitrated by one.’

The sellout stands, dumbfounded, before the court, ‘trying to figure out if there was a state of being between “guilty” and “innocent”’. Why are these the only alternatives, he wonders? ‘Why couldn’t I be “neither” or “both”?’