The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paperback, 289 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Picador (first published March 3rd 2015)

The Sellout is the first book by an American author to win the UK’s prestigious Man Booker Prize.

A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality – the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens – on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles – the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident – the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins – he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

This entire novel, especially the prologue, reminded me of the ramblings of someone’s old grandpa rocking on the front porch of his clapboard home. I can only assume this is exactly what Beatty was going for, by the direction the novel ended up taking, but I felt like I was reading—no, sifting through—a bunch of nonsense I just wanted to be done with. And a lot of this read like an ultra-liberal excuse to spout out the n-word (hard er, mind you) as both a starting point, comma and full stop to every paragraph. It was absolutely exhausting.

I was looking forward to a good satire, but I don’t think I ever laughed once, because I was too distracted by trying to figure out what the hell he was even rambling about and how it fit into any possible plot line, ironic device, literary direction–hell, even a Katt Williams-like satirical skit–anything! I wanted to like this one – the first time non-Commonwealthers are allowed to be considered for the Man Booker Prize and an American—I’d be lying if I didn’t go ahead and point out—and African American wins it. I HAVE to read it; I’m so excited…I’m so confused…I’m so let down.

I don’t want to take away from the win at all. Have it; keep it, Paul Beatty. But I’m not on the bandwagon. Not even a little bit. DNF.

 

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Paul Beatty Paul Beatty (born 1962 in Los Angeles) is a contemporary African-American author. Beatty received an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in psychology from Boston University. He is a 1980 graduate of El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, California.

In 1990, Paul Beatty was crowned the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. One of the prizes for winning that championship title was the book deal which resulted in his first volume of poetry, Big Bank Takes Little Bank. This would be followed by another book of poetry Joker, Joker, Deuce as well as appearances performing his poetry on MTV and PBS (in the series The United States of Poetry). In 1993, he was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award.

His first novel, The White Boy Shuffle received a positive review in The New York Times, the reviewer, Richard Bernstein, called the book “a blast of satirical heat from the talented heart of black American life.” His second book, Tuff received a positive notice in Time Magazine. Most recently, Beatty edited an anthology of African-American humor called Hokum and wrote an article in The New York Times on the same subject.

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Paperback, 216 pages
Published September 6th 2005 by Plume (first published June 1st 1970)

…his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud…The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.

While I was not the biggest fan of Morrison’s style in this novel, I did fully appreciate the dagger-sharp insight that she brought to the color caste system that is so prevalent in African-American culture, even today. Her dialogue rang so true, I could hear it coming directly out of my mother’s mouth, my grandmother’s mouth, and those of all of the women who’ve ever filled our kitchens with raucous communal fun and glum communal tragedy alike. Her use of the Dick & Jane children’s books, used for decades to teach children to read (SEEMOTHERMOTHERISVERYNICEMOTHERWILLYOUPLAYWITHJANEMOTHERLAUGHS  LAUGHMOTHERLAUGHLA) created a chilling, ironic and staggering contrast between the lives of the whites and those of the blacks in this novel. Shirley Temple, Mary Jane candies, and Jean Harlow hairstyles – you’ll find the delicacy of all of them here, both in these characters’ reality and in metaphor. While the truth and injustices here were often sobering to read, they were filled with too much truth to rightfully deny or turn away from.

I could spend hours discussing this novel. I could quote from it all day, but I won’t do that, because the entire read was poignant and so crisply aware of the color line – the how and the why – that there is no one point that can overshadow another in the message that these words aimed to send. This novel is older than I am, and yet it still rings with such verity, with such biting truth and reality. With The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison cut open the existence of both internalized and externalized racism in America and laid it bare and exposed at our feet. For that, she deserves nothing but reverence and applause, so she will always have that from me.

Anyone who’s ever been in doubt of a color line in Black America should read this book. Anyone who’s ever questioned, “But why can’t I say those words when you say them all the time? But why do you still believe that racism exists? Why can’t you just get over it – the past is the past?” should read this book. In fact, just read this book anyway – how about that? 🙂 *****

*To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads @Navidad Thelamour.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Hardcover, 432 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Crown

I received a copy of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City from the publisher, Crown, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Matthew Desmond’s research-driven prose is a dazzling work of examination and insight. Within these pages, the business and culture of evictions is dissected down to the very dollars and cents that uphold this thriving industry. The judicial system and the role it plays is scrutinized, and the lives of 8 families are put on intimate display for readers to bear witness to. Within the pages of Eviction, Desmond paints a clandestine portrait of the precarious lives of those living at and below the poverty line in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the time of his research. The survey into this little-known world is done first hand, with the aid of a tape recorder, and thus is the most personal and complete look at modern American poverty that I have read in a long time. Here, readers will follow the desolate, the addicted, the impoverished and the “lords” who shape their lives in these dangerous and volatile social environments called homes.

This book unveiled some of the most stunningly accurate vernacular and dialogue that I have seen anywhere, non-fiction or fiction. (Note to self: if you want to really capture the essence of a culture, use a tape recorder.) With this simple technique, Desmond was able to capture the true personification of the frustration and despair, of their interactions and intentions, and, hence, the dialogue told a story all of its own within these pages. It told a story of where these people came from and how they truly related to one another on a human level. He captured the true swag of these neighborhoods, the soul and essence that can’t be seen at first passing glance out of a car window.

The research in Evicted was expertly incorporated so that it read as fluidly in narrative as a fiction novel, and it was incorporated throughout, which was great, because it allowed the reader to absorb the information with illustrations of narration to make it easier and faster to digest. It also allowed for a read that wasn’t leaden with factoids, reading like a dry and tedious text book. The lives he chose to chronicle and exhibit were harrowing and demonstrative of humanity’s capacity to fail and to survive, to overcome and to find comfort in community. It also pulled back the curtains on this booming industry that both exploits the poor and treats them as expendable members of society.

In Evicted, Desmond dissected a truth that goes back to the Civil Rights Movement when Fair Housing laws were enacted. Stirring and emotional, this read holds a shiny mirror to the face of America. Similar to the PIC (Prison Industrial Complex) the eviction process, nay culture, is a vicious and debilitating cycle with ripple effects into communities. This exposé displayed how crime and evictions go hand-in-hand, each leading to the other with alarming frequency, a form of institutionalized parasitism on the poor at the hands of the judicial system and slum lords (in the instances where there are, in fact, slum lords). Here, Desmond portrays both the crimes that lead to evictions and the evictions that foster a bed of crimes.

This work really appealed to me when I read its blurb, and it did not disappoint. It was not a traumatically graphic read, but it was all consuming. Vignette after vignette portrayed the mental and emotional anguish that living at the poverty line heaps on it dwellers so that the only reprieve came in the form of spirited dialogue and intimate conversations between those he chronicled and their family and friends and from the research that clarified the stats behind their suffering, which was interspersed throughout. Other than that, there was no reprieve from the grief, struggling and suffering and, in a way, I think that that was not only the point of this read but, in many ways, an intellectual profit to the reader. Within these pages, those who could never in their own everyday lives imagine such hardships will be transported over the imaginary line that exists in all cities: the line between the haves and the have nots. That is a line that everyone should cross at some time, so pick up this read preparing to take a journey. Evicted gained itself a strong 4 stars. ****