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Paul Beatty's 'Sellout' gets to the heart of 'radical seriousness'

| Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, 8:09 p.m.
Author Paul Beatty
HANNAH ASSOULINE
Author Paul Beatty
'The Sellout' by Paul Beatty
'The Sellout' by Paul Beatty

Throughout Paul Beatty's novel “The Sellout” (Picador), various classic, pop and sports figures and works are referenced. George Eliot's “Middlemarch” and Mark Twain are mentioned, as are Michael Jackson, the rapper Whodini, Barbra Streisand, the Marx Brothers, Johnny Unitas and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Beatty, who became the first American to win the Man Booker Prize for Literature, in 2016, doesn't think this is an unusual device.

“I guess everything in its time is pop culture,” says Beatty, who appears at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland on Jan. 29 as a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Ten Evenings series. “For me they are ways to get a point across a little bit. Sometimes there's a little homage in there too. …. I think sometimes there's a fear of referencing anything because it's tied to an era. But I remember reading ‘Inferno,' Dante's poem, and it's filled with pop culture references. It doesn't matter who that pope is or that cardinal was or the mayor of a little Italian town. It's important because it was important to him, but it doesn't hold the book back in any way.”

Beatty's novel was called “… a novel for our times,” by Amanda Foreman, the 2016 chair of judges for the Man Booker Prize. “A tirelessly inventive modern satire, its humour disguises a radical seriousness.”

The novel's plot concerns a man, Bonbon, in the fictional California town of Dickens – an “agrarian ghetto” – who wants to reinstate slavery and segregate the local high school. Bonbon's ploy, driven by economic necessity and a sense of outrage that Dickens has been excised from the California map by government officials, eventually finds him arguing his case before the Supreme Court.

When asked if it's easier to talk about race by using satire or comedy, Beatty demurs.

“For me the book is in part not so much talking about race, but talking about the way people talk about race,” he says. “When people say (it's easier to talk about race using humor), I don't know what they want. … There's something in the book about how it's not easy to talk about child abuse, either. It's a common, common thing. … I'm not sure why there's an expectation that it should be easy to talk about. I'm just not sure where any of this is coming from and what an easy conversation would look like.”

The novel opens with the narrator, Bonbon, getting ready to address the Supreme Court. The first line is remarkable in that it encapsulates the biases and prejudices Beatty addresses in the book:

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything.”

“Once I figured out to open the book at the Supreme Court, that just helped me to set the voice,” Beatty says. “You can see where that line would come from. It's just trying to tell the reader why he's there. … But it took a while. I feel like it took at least a year and a half to come up with that.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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