Dwight “Yokum” Garner that pompously gliberal white supremacist literary critic from the NY Times is at it again, pretending that he actually knows what he’s ‘talking ‘bout (FAT CHANCE folks!). In the meantime it’s ominously clear that this boy ain’t no more up to the task of competently reviewing the work of Paul Beatty than he was with his truly execrable pseudohip doodling over the work of Amiri Baraka a couple weeks ago. Garner still reminds me of those cocky white boys and girls who first learned to dance by fervently watching and imitating all the moves they appropriated from"raucous yet undeniably sexy" black videos produced on the new cable program YO! MTV RAPS after the black megastars Michael Jackson, Prince, and Rick James had their respective very wealthy record companies successfully threaten to SUE the new ambitiously apartheid network for ignoring/banning the work of black artists way back in the early ‘80s when Garner himself was in college and no doubt tuned in to see what the “fuss” was all about (and how much you wanna bet that many of them tuning in later inexplicably became acclaimed “urban choreographers”, turntabalists, 'rap journalists', and “hiphop curators”?) When I see Paul again (who not so ironically I actually hung out with back in the mid/late ‘80s in NYC) I’m going to remind him that cultural and political GLIBERALISM (a deadly accurate term that I first saw/heard Ishmael Reed use) became really popular (and depressingly useful) among white intellectuals in the mid to late 1970s AFTER the ugly dust had cleared following all the assassinations, riots, rebellions, and intellectual /activist trench warfare of the wildly subversive and tragically lethal 1963-1973 period. Then we’ll have a drink, sarcastically lift our glasses in a loud and lusty toast to the inevitable Yokum Garners in this world and laugh really, really hard until our eyeballs actually fall out of their sockets. So much for the power of litcrit these daze, huh?…
Review: ‘The Sellout,’ Paul Beatty’s Biting Satire on Race in America
By DWIGHT GARNER
FEBRUARY 26, 2015
NEW YORK TIMES
Paul Beatty is the author of four novels and two books of poetry, all of them worthwhile. But the book of his that I return to most is one he edited. It’s called “Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor” (2006).
In his introduction to “Hokum,” Mr. Beatty speaks about reading the canonical black writers as a young man and “welcoming the rhetoric but over time missing the black bon mot, the snap, the bag, the whimsy upon which” — I am working around a perfectly detonated vulgarity here — both righteous anger and freedom take flight. “It was as if the black writers I’d read,” he declared, “didn’t have any friends.”
Mr. Beatty ended his introduction by making a kind of promise, one his anthology kept. “I hope ‘Hokum’ beats you down like an outclassed club fighter,” he wrote. “Each blow plastering that beaten boxer smile on your face, that ear-to-ear grin you flash to the crowd to convince them that if you’re laughing, then you ain’t hurt.”
Mr. Beatty’s introduction was audacious on many levels, one of them being that he writes funny himself. His declarations in “Hokum” can’t help but read, in part, like Babe Ruth pointing to the bleachers in anticipation of pounding a ball straight out there. They read like the declarations of a man intent on standing, chuckling and delivering.
Deliver Mr. Beatty has. The first 100 pages of his new novel, “The Sellout,” are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade. I gave up underlining the killer bits because my arm began to hurt.
“Badass” is not the most precise critical term. What I mean is that the first third of “The Sellout” reads like the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility.
Mr. Beatty impastos every line, in ways that recall writers like Ishmael Reed, with shifting densities of racial and political meaning. The jokes come up through your spleen.
So much happens in “The Sellout” that describing it is like trying to shove a lemon tree into a shot glass. It’s also hard to describe without quoting the nimble ways Mr. Beatty deals out the N-word. This novel’s best lines, the ones that either puncture or tattoo your heart, are mostly not quotable here.
Most basically “The Sellout” is about a young black man born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a neighborhood on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, who becomes an artisanal watermelon and weed dealer. One of the finer pot strains he develops is called Anglophobia.
He ends up before the Supreme Court because he is — wait for it — reinstating slavery, at least in his own house, and segregating the local middle school, boxing whites out. His sidekick and erstwhile chattel is an old man named Hominy, the last surviving Little Rascal. Hominy says things like, “You know, massa, Bugs Bunny wasn’t nothing but Br’er Rabbit with a better agent.”
Broad satirical vistas are not so hard for a novelist to sketch. What’s hard is the close-up work, the bolt-by-bolt driving home of your thoughts and your sensibility. This is where Mr. Beatty shines.
“Like most black males raised in Los Angeles, I’m bilingual only to the extent that I can sexually harass women of all ethnicities in their native languages,” our narrator deposes. He’s bluffing, mostly.
He’s a sensitive soul, attuned to the way the sunlight floods over his girlfriend, “turning the edges of her frizzy undone hair into a flaming corona of split ends and shame.” His favorite color is “the soft light-blue of a pool lit up at night.”
The son of a single father, who is a maniacal social scientist (the narrator’s absent mother was once “beauty of the week” in Jet magazine), he had a weird childhood. His allowance was called restitution. He was the subject of odd experiments.
“When I was seven months,” he tells us, “Pops placed objects like toy police cars, cold cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and a copy of The Economist in my bassinet, but instead of conditioning me with a deafening clang, I learned to be afraid of the presented stimuli because they were accompanied by him taking out the family .38 Special and firing several window-rattling rounds into the ceiling, while shouting, ‘Nigger, go back to Africa!’ loud enough to make himself heard over the quadraphonic console stereo blasting ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in the living room.”
His dad takes him to the regular meetings of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, held in a local doughnut shop, meetings that are a gift to an author primed to send up the pretensions of some black intellectuals. His dad never does get around to writing the best-selling memoir he hopes to write, which he considered calling “I’m Ai’ight. You’re Ai’ight.”
Prick the satire in “The Sellout,” and real blood emerges. The narrator’s father is shot dead by Los Angeles police officers for, basically, driving while black. There’s a surreal but aching scene in which the narrator drapes his father’s body over the horse he keeps on his urban farm and clops home through the streets, a pageant I’d love to see filmed by Charles Burnett.
Almost the entirety of black American culture and stereotypes are carved up under this novel’s microscope: Tiger Woods, Clarence Thomas (given a memorable line), Oreo cookies, fairy tales (“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your weave!”), Bill Cosby, cotton picking, penis size, Saturday morning cartoons, George Washington Carver, lawn jockeys, Mike Tyson. The “do-gooder condescension” of Dave Eggers comes in for a hazing. The American liberal agenda is folded into origami.
A bowdlerized version of “Middlemarch” for black students is retitled, “Middlemarch Middle of April, I’ll Have Your Money — I Swear.” A television crew asks a rioter if the looting and madness will change anything. The response, when it arrives: “Well, I’m on TV, ain’t I, bitch?”
The riffs don’t stop coming in this landmark and deeply aware comic novel. About Stevie Wonder, the narrator says his Latin motto should be, “Cogito, ergo Boogieum. I think, therefore I jam.” Ditto this book.
“The Sellout,” I am sad to say, falls into a holding pattern in its final two-thirds. Mr. Beatty still writes vividly, and you’re already up there at 30,000 feet. But the sense of upward thrust is mostly absent.
Yet this slashing novel puts you down in a place that’s miles from where it picked you up. It suggests, as the narrator’s father tells him one night, half-wasted on Scotch whisky, “The real question is not where do ideas come from but where do they go.” That’s not hokum at all.
By Paul Beatty
288 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.