Habitual Line-Steppers: Tracing Paul Beatty’s Influences

June 27, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 29 7 min read


“I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world,” declares the protagonist of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. And yet this is more a confession by Beatty himself, a warning shot by an expert marksman of diction. When his 1996 novel The White Boy Shuffle arrived, it was enough to satisfy fans of his nights onstage at the Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd. But it wasn’t until the release of The Sellout that Beatty stepped forward to share his audacious prose and penchant for outlandish diatribes with the uninitiated. The Sellout arrived as an examination of our present social dysfunctions, and succeeds in granting a marginalized group the chance to laugh, curse, scream, and celebrate.

coverIn The Sellout, Paul Beatty introduces readers to a nameless narrator of African-American descent who lobbies for the reinstatement of segregation in his hometown of Dickens, Los Angeles. This is oversimplifying what Beatty pulls off on the page, which is a rich and calculated unearthing of social stigma and ignorance, on every side of the line — black/white, poor/rich, political/radical. With Beatty in the pilot’s seat, no one is safe. Page after page, he slings wickedly sharp satire that in lesser hands would hijack the entire narrative. Instead, Beatty’s page-long riffs land safely right back on the page, leaving the reader with just enough energy to shake her head and turn it over. “How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids?” the narrator asks us. “Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, eggshell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?”

coverIn a 2000 interview with Rone Shavers for BOMB, Beatty was asked about the figures who inspire him to write with such unfiltered focus, naming Richard Pryor and Kurt Vonnegut: “By trying to be vulnerable and not (being) afraid to parody things that are important to you and to others. Those are two guys that I feel aren’t afraid to show the cursed antihero.” Beatty studied Vonnegut during the author’s boom in popularity, although he was never able to meet him. Beatty creates a lead character who –like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five — is displaced in his own life following a violent event. In his period in time, Vonnegut connected displacement to the horrors of war by crafting a character who was “unstuck” in time. For Beatty, the institutional racism forged a character raging against the displacement of erasure. Both characters attempt to live out rational lives, but must do so using irrational means. But Beatty and Vonnegut’s scars are immensely different.

When the father of Beatty’s protagonist is gunned down by police, he attempts to resolve his anger only to find that his hometown of Dickens has literally been erased from the map. In order to be recognized by the rest of the world, he hires a slave to serve as his footstool (among other things) and then lobbies in America’s highest court for the reinstatement of segregation, as Beatty cartoonishly straps TNT to current realities. The character decides to face one injustice by burying it beneath another, setting off a series of beautifully awkward but truth-dispensing absurdities.

In every chapter, Beatty evokes, not only the pain of the African-American community, but also that of the various other cultures which society has enmeshed in the institution of racism. In one section, a character named Charisma Molina says the phrase “Too many Mexicans,” prompting a perfect example of a Beatty’s explosion of phrasing and social commentary.

The Indians, who were looking for peace and quiet, ended up finding Jesus, forced labor, the whip, and the rhythm method…White people, the type who never used to have anything to say to black people except “We have no vacancies,” “You missed a spot,” and “Rebound the basketball,” finally have something to say to us…Mexicans are to blame for everything. Someone in California sneezes, you don’t say “Gesundheit” but “Too Many Mexicans.”

Beatty wrestles this complicated issue to the ground by explaining that white supremacy is in constant need of placing the subjugated into a hierarchy: whites try to relate to black people by calling into question the character of other groups, dragging people of color into racial stereotyping.

Amazingly, Beatty did not write this book as a reaction to the current wave of police brutality and social injustice. According to Evelyn McDonnell, who has been following his career for over a decade, The Sellout was written and finished well before the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But the message hidden within its pages harkens to our past and our future. Even the setting of The Sellout is itself a collision of the African-American past and present; the town of Dickens contains ghettos and farmland, a tapestry of the African-American struggle:

You know when you’ve entered the Farms, because the city sidewalks, along with your rims, car stereo, nerve, and progressive voting record, will have vanished into air thick with the smell of cow manure and, if the wind is blowing the right direction — good weed.

Beatty crafts Dickens to be possibly his most tragic character — that which comes to represent the beaten black body. Both are a commodity reaped after colonization. Both are treated as entities whose existence and nonexistence is decided by an elite few. The neighboring towns who voted to erase Dickens from the map did so stating that it was done “to keep their property values up and their blood pressures down,” a quote that could be plucked in this day and age from the mouths of city planners, neighborhood watches, and business owners who have never heard of Paul Beatty.

With this world as his stage, Beatty seems to relish having such a flawed mouthpiece — his very own “cursed antihero” — to guide us through the events of the book. Here is a man who, like Billy Pilgrim, is being forced to exist outside of society. But unlike Vonnegut’s protagonist, Beatty’s narrator comes to understand that his lot in life has also contributed to, and yes even benefited from, racism (he is a farmer of watermelon and weed), making him both an active practitioner and victim of the societal construct. In short, the narrator in The Sellout is able to carry the story, and do so with unapologetic zeal, because he believes that in his world, two wrongs do make a right.

Dickens is home to some farcical characters. The narrator is raised by his father, a brilliant social scientist named (of all things) Carl Jung who seems more interested in experimenting on his son than actually raising him. At another point in the book, the narrator goes on to describe someone as:

“(a) Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African American Legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos ’n’ Andy, Dave Chappelle’s meltdown…”

Much like Richard Pryor, Beatty’s other lodestar, Dave Chappelle had made a name for himself on the stand-up circuit when, in 2003, Comedy Central gave him a 12-episode show. At the time, there was nothing like it. Saturday Night Live and the now cancelled Fox’a Mad TV were the only popular sketch comedy shows with a strong viewership. But the moment Chappelle’s Show launched, people of color were instantly drawn to it. This was long before the power and reach of social media, decades before “Black Twitter” became a sounding board for people of color. And yet, by episode three, on the strength of word of mouth alone, there wasn’t a black or Latino teenager I knew who was missing a new Chappelle’s Show every Tuesday night. We would cancel hanging out with friends, basketball games. I went as far as rescheduling a date so that I wasn’t behind on the references my friends were bound to make the following day.

Season one broke records in DVD sales for Comedy Central and in 2003, Chappelle signed a $50 million deal to produce more episodes, but in 2004, he ended up walking away from the show and going into hiding. The press speculated mental stress, fatigue, and even drug problems as possible reasons for the comedian’s sudden departure. Later, he would go on to dispel the rumors by explaining, “I’m not going to lie to you, I got scared,” he said. “The higher up I went, the less happy I was. Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous. You can get infamous, but you can’t get unfamous.”

Ironically, what had made the Chappelle’s Show valuable to African Americans, and what had likewise boosted Chappelle himself to superstar status, also shortened its lifespan. At its peak, standout sketches such as “Black Bush,” a sketch many years before Barack Obama was a household name, and the “Racial Draft,” a wild segment in which different nationalities participate in an NBA-style event to settle celebrity identities once and for all, became embedded in the cultural lexicon. The show’s clever routing of cultural tropes coupled with its exposure, was a testament to the craft Chappelle and co-creator Neal Brennan infused in the show’s weekly sketches and musical performances. Their subject matter was always raw, completely devoid of the political correctness of current television. And yet it was also oddly silly in a way, a perfect concoction of bite and R&B. The short sketches could be enjoyed simply for their ridiculous shock value alone. But many also dissected these pieces for their reflections on societal norms and saw the entire show as an expansion of the strides black comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor made before Chappelle’s time.

In many ways, the comedian could very easily stand in place of the narrator in The Sellout: both being intelligent and hilarious with their keen and unfiltered views of our society, and both having to come to grips with the responsibility — and the cost — of being empowered to act on that vision. All of the characters, regardless of how completely absurd they seem, are reacting to living in a time in which Beatty also resides; one in which he is daring to call something “‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” These are people in pain, lost, forgotten. They are the “unstuck,” the “disappeared.” The denizens of Beatty’s America have to own their dysfunctions in order to be recognized. In the end of the story, a character that has been speaking down to and infantilizing his black community (a possible allusion to Beatty’s own thoughts on icons such as Toni Morrison), has been harboring a secret that derails his self-righteous standing. In short, Beatty is posing that these people need to play characters in order to protect their true selves from being swallowed by society.

So what does this mean for Paul Beatty the poet, the writer, the black satirist? “Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous.” How does he avoid the pitfalls of becoming as absurd as his narrator, or the symbol trying to carry his entire community on his back? As his narrator puts it at the end of the book, “I’m afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep.”

is a Bronx-born writer out of New York. His writing has been featured in The Rumpus, Entropy Mag, and Points in Case. His literary essays and reviews have been selected in The Millions and Fjords Review, with his most recent being translated into Italian. He is currently writing a book about his life that would make a terrible movie. You can follow his calculated musings on Twitter @SmilingDarkly.


  1. As an irritable WOC (writer of color) , I have to say: the expectations are crushingly low when it comes to Literature written by Black Americans.

    I’ve read two of Beatty’s books (The Sellout and Slumberland). Beatty’s literary instrument isn’t even secondhand… and the passages excerpted above would be just about passable coming out of some college quarterly’s inaugural issue. But maybe that’s what you get when you make literacy, within a certain population, a capital crime for a few centuries; even now that “slavery is over” (technically speaking), bookish, articulate Black kids are treated as though they’re freaks of nature by Black and White alike… where are Great Black Writers supposed to come from?

    This is an intellectual deprivation enforced by American Culture and loosely analogous to the collective emotional inhibitions of the Eisenhower years, which produced White *musical* illiterates like Pat Boone for a public that didn’t know any better. Popular Black Musical Culture was light years beyond its White counterpart (until some point in the 1980s, sadly)… very few would refute this. But the taboo is in pointing out that the *roles were/are reversed when it comes to Lit*. Just as Coltrane (and the genre he embodies) towers over Getz (and the genre he embodies), Pynchon towers over Ellison… and the reasons, in each case, transcend questions of native talent to credit, or indict, each respective Society behind each Artist I mention. America has produced enough Black Giants, in the field of music, to populate a capital city of geniuses; no one, speaking knowledgeably and frankly, could make the same claim regarding Lit.

    I’d rather reverse that trend than speak nicely. Not that either will happen any time soon.

  2. @Steve Augustine

    Your cultural critique is predictably on target, but I wonder if you’re not guilty of overreach here…because you don’t like / appreciate satire? Not that you don’t get it – you just don’t like it. I admit, poorly written, stereotype-heavy pulp fiction that reduces the tragedies of eastern Europe to a plot point completely piss me off.

    I’m a white guy, so what do I know. Yet, to frame this, Beatty got me to flinch with about the same frequency that Ta Nehisi Coates did. Different strokes, same pain. More importantly, the same sense that I was finally beginning to understand something that has eluded me for a long time.

    Finally, while I feel we might have a lot to talk about re jazz, you have to admit this. Kind of Blue doesn’t even HAPPEN unless Bill Evans is in the room. Exceptio probat regulam.

  3. @il’ja

    “because you don’t like / appreciate satire?”

    If it’s the same “satire” (satire so traditionally broad that asking what, exactly, the channeler is *satirizing*, is not an unreasonable thing to do), in essentially the same (limited) language, over and over again…! Ach. I don’t tend to agree with the charts and spells of French Structuralists but these books just keep writing themselves and with an utter lack of Invention or Wit. The Patronizing Liberal Gatekeeping-Continuum co-writes them. The well-meaning Hillary-voter reads them and is always, again, reassured in his/her assumptions about not only the pseudo-archetypes peppering the text but about the “writers” themselves.

    One of the most jaw-droppingly poorly-written books I read last year was carried around in a victory march on the shoulders of every single blogger who reviewed it. A Woman of Color cobbled it together under the light pressure of the default hosannas she knew she was owed for being a Woman… of Color . The irony being that Beatty himself takes potshots at this sort of thing. But being the unwitting embodiment of such an irony doesn’t make him richly, self-deprecatingly self-aware. It makes him symptomatic. And far from stupid: because if he wrote better books they probably wouldn’t get published.

    Re: Evans/ Miles: well, obviously, my analogy is necessarily *general* because I’m comparing thousands of people using dozens of words; it isn’t meant to accurately compare a thousand pairs of talents, one pair at a time! Laugh. And, like any statistical shotgun, it gets more accurate the larger the target it’s aimed at, so, by the time you include not just Jazz but *all* of American Popular music, I think the analogy isn’t bad: Black American Popular Music is a world-dominating prodigy; its fraternal twin, named Black Lit, is sort of… hmmmm… slow in comparison?

    It’s an absolutely forbidden topic. But as teeth-grindingly slap-dash and TV-tainted as most American Lit is, these days, Black Lit is too often worse than the average, because, again: the standards are so low, the stereotype of anti-intellectuality so fundamental and the pool of Black Writing Talent is SO cruelly proscribed (and strangled in its reading habits and its expression) by Society’s bizarre antebellum notions of what an “authentic” Black American human is. African Lit suffers little of this effect, btw. African writers are usually allowed, first off, to master English if it’s English they choose to write in…

    The passages from Beatty’s book, cited above, are fairly representative of the book. And they are A) tired B) flimsy C) sophomoric. In my (it goes without saying) opinion.

    PS To return to Jazz: why do you suppose Oscar Peterson gets/got such stick for his technique? Because, the last time I checked, white guitarists are celebrated for the same “sin”…

  4. “More importantly, the same sense that I was finally beginning to understand something that has eluded me for a long time.”

    Listen, one of the greatest tricks of Late Model Capitalism is getting the congenital inmates to build their own cells and gallows and pay for the privilege of using them. This is the key to our suffering now. ALL of us. We (Blacks) are not different, as a tradition or a class, on the level of our basic alienation and discomfort. Really. Standard empathy will get us. Serfs are Serfs. We are all Serfs. Our Overlords aren’t reading this site.

  5. @Steve Augustine

    This is really good stuff, but I’m out of my depth, so I’m going to pick and choose.

    “…these books just keep writing themselves and with an utter lack of Invention or Wit. The Patronizing Liberal Gatekeeping-Continuum co-writes them. The well-meaning Hillary-voter reads them and is always, again, reassured in his/her assumptions about…”
    Nature may abhor a vacuum, but privileged society sure loves the next best thing – a good echo chamber – doesn’t it? But I think this goes further than you intend/believe: “…if he wrote better books they probably wouldn’t get published.” They would, though, they would likely struggle to get any promotion, and we know what that means in Late Capitalism.

    Yet, here’s the thing. It’s a thing I believe about the ones with something important to say: they manage. Avoiding abstractions, a good example are Soviet film directors of the 50s – 70s. Names like Eldar Ryazanov, Leonid Gaidai, and Georgiy Daneliya stand out as men of talent who produced, ostensibly, decidedly mainstream films. Typically nice and chuckly, romantic, with a healthy dollop of Soviet absurdity, but – and this is where the man of letters is always the better of his censor – inside their harmless, family-friendly packaging, were deeply subversive films excoriating of the Soviet regime. Films that State censors with bigger fish to fry – e.g., Tarkovsky, Paradjanov – let through. Ryazanov, in a remarkable interview, talks about shooting overtly anti-Soviet scenes to be included in the canisters submitted to the censors, KNOWING that they would be spotted, cut, and everything else would be let go. And these myth-exploding messages went out into society, film after film, invading the vernacular, shaping the worldview of, conservatively, two generations of Soviet citizens.

    But the most effective anti-Soviet politics were, of a necessity, subtle in their manifestation. To the matter at hand, perhaps that’s where the value of Beattie, Mat Johnson lies – in that ability to be political in a way that the dominant structure doesn’t see as a threat, however limiting it may, currently, be. In other words, TO YOU Beattie’s prose is tired, but to the target audience? To those whose consciousness could use some fermentation on this topic? E.G., to me?

    The lineage of this sad inevitability is something I think you’ve marked out well, but Steven, people – this generation in particular – don’t give a shit. History? Live in the moment, dude. Gestalt is HARD-unto-IMPOSSIBLE in the age of solipsism. This is “Like” and “Retweet” world. Could it be that Beattie is solidifying his base before he unloads on us at some point when we’re (more) ready for it? I’m counting on it. That’s where we disagree: I think the man IS self-aware, and knows the half-life of “angry (writing) black man” is a thing to be managed with caution. Take what you can, seemingly capitulate, take what they’ll give, until you don’t have to any longer. There’s no way he doesn’t know the rules to this game. He’s picking his spot to transgress.

    RE: Oscar. I just met, interviewed, and will have a piece coming out *somewhere* soon about the pianist Gerald Clayton. He puts Oscar right at the top of his list of influences. Give Gerald a listen, you won’t regret it. It might even supply you with a nice reminder to pay no attention to the peanut gallery. Because when I hear Gerald I hear Oscar, and Kenny Barron, and Thelonious, a vein of such purity it can only encourage me in the conviction that manifestations of the divine are rare, and rarely cherished for what they are.

    peace from Kyiv

  6. il’ja!

    “Ryazanov, in a remarkable interview, talks about shooting overtly anti-Soviet scenes to be included in the canisters submitted to the censors, KNOWING that they would be spotted, cut, and everything else would be let go. And these myth-exploding messages went out into society, film after film, invading the vernacular, shaping the worldview of, conservatively, two generations of Soviet citizens.”

    Brilliant and wonderful! Very Elizabethan that… the Marlovian Art of the dodge and the acrostic Cipher.

    Ah, but I can’t wait to run ahead to respond to the comment about Oscar, over whom I’ve had some heated arguments (in actual meatspace) with soi disant “Jazz Aficionados” who think that the more primitive the technique, the “blacker” and better the Jazz. It would make you woozy to know how common it is to find Peterson dismissed as a “show off” and “soulless” and so on. It’s even worse than hearing anyone call Elvis (and not Little Richard) “The King”! Laugh. I’ll definitely check out Gerald Clayton on your recommendation.

    Jazzy Aside: You’ve probably heard of the neo-maximalist Kamasi Washington… right now, his manifesto is, perhaps, more interesting than his work… but I expect the latter to catch up fairly quickly.

    Re: Beatty: I actually have a problem with Beatty on purely technical terms, which I will go into in an upcoming comment (unless they shut down the thread as a security measure)…

    I’ll say only this, for now: IMO, Beatty’s choice of a “satirical” style gives the emptiness of his writerly toolkit away. Isn’t H.L. Mencken-type grandiloquence the default whenever a sophomore tries his/her hand at “satire”? It’s crying out for an editor’s firm, post-racial hand.

  7. @steven augustine

    Kamasi! We might rightly be accused of moving beyond Paul Beatty, but I think the contrast is pretty telling. “The Epic” put me in bed for a week; Beatty didn’t. The first time I heard it, I got it off a friend’s flash drive and listened out of order, random or scramble, or whatever that’s called, and the first track up was “Claire de Lune” and I’m thinking, what the hell is this?

    So you tell me, why doesn’t the patronizing attitude that you outline, (another great example of soft coercion at work in free society) that militates against the development of Black Am Lit produce a similar outcome in the music industry? What’s the liberator at work there that has exploded in this current – I’m convinced – Silver Age of American jazz, with so much huge talent, so much innovation, and exerting such significant influence on *ahem* lesser forms of music?

    If I accept your premise – and I’m not sure yet – Beattie writes the way he does because nobody wants trouble, and there’s the extra bonus that if the publisher promotes the book to the white guilt market, blurbing it as “a provocation” or whatever, nobody better object, and questions of artistic merit need never be raised. The literature suffers as a result.

    But Ambrose Akinmusire, Kamasi, and Gerald Clayton – in an industry where production costs must be significantly higher than those in publishing – can just soar, experiment like crazy, and jazz flourishes (and influences) in a way we haven’t seen since Big Band or maybe post-bop. Call me skeptical if you’re suggesting that Jazz is impervious to institutional racism. Or are jazz musicians just too stoned to tell? (joke) Or that virtuosity builds on virtuosity? And Oscar Peterson, “soulless”? Somebody’s tone deaf. Or born after 1985.

    As usual, very good stuff.

  8. il’ja!

    “and the first track up was “Claire de Lune” and I’m thinking, what the hell is this?”

    Nearly the same here: I found KW’s Claire on YouTube and thought: “what the hell is this?” Its languorous, love-struck, lurching majesty excited the p*ss out of me. I find the songs on The Epic (the ones with actual lead vocals) a tad hokey… (a residual problem of the Black middle class’s middlebrow leanings? laugh) but the instrumental arrangements, and the line-up, are inspired. You are too right with the “Silver Age” comment (after that false start of the Marsalis Dynasty, c. 1985 A.D.). We look to L.A..

    As to why Kamasi and his colleagues get to soar, conceptually, while most Black American novelists are still hopping and rolling or spread-eagle on the windshield…

    …I think part of the reason is that Kamasi is able to operate under the protection of an old American (now global) stereotype that Blacks are naturally musical. Black kids are often encouraged to take up music at an early age and whether or not playing sax, on an “urban” schoolyard, is or was considered cool, you probably wouldn’t get beaten for it, or taunted mercilessly. Whereas, as I stated earlier: bookish little Black proto-Intellectuals were taking their lives in their hands every day of the week if they hadn’t learned, at an early age, to hide the erudition.

    And then they went to respectable colleges and gangsta-rap-loving White kids called them “Oreos”! And the fathers of these White kids, the ones with Publishing Houses, probably aren’t super excited by the idea of a Black Thomas Mann or a Black James Joyce; I think they’re looking for something “Blacker”. The problem being, of course, the bloodcurdling way that “Blacker” is defined. Far too entangled with tribal formulations of masculinity (the root of *most* of America’s social problems, IMO, across all races/classes).

    Subtler than that are the subliminal superstitions and insecurities of the audience, that blurred giant whose whims all artists, in the end, depend on. The audience accepts Beatty in his role and Kamasi in his and at least we get Kamasi in the deal!

    Thanks, il’ja, sincerely, for the meaty conversation. Would that the Internets were full of your ilk! Instead, as we know, it’s mostly… cats.

  9. Just wanted to say this is the best comment section I’ve ever read, and after spending half the day on Reddit, it salvaged my faith that the internet doesn’t necessarily always have to resemble and smell like a heap of flaming diapers.

  10. @Steven Augustine

    re: Branford, etc. “Renaissance”, quite profoundly, changed my life. I’ll always be grateful to Branford for that. The respect for those who had gone before, that fearless virtuosity, and significantly, how the effort to examine origins does matter. One stinkin’ album made me a better physicist, theologian, linguist, and (likely) person. Prior, I could have been a case study of “the naive 24-year-old American male”. But the clouds parted when it finally dawned that this music, this level of accomplishment, could not only be grossly underappreciated – and, in the current pathology, hated/scorned – but that it would ever have to battle with the dominant mercantilism just to ever have a hope of being heard…well, that knocked me on my ass. Like I said: naive.

    But it never made me question Branford’s integrity or art. I’m ignorant of the process, the conversations that must take place (though, likely, not any more in his case) to record the songs he wants to record, and it will be tough to shake me of my credulity that he’s playing exactly the music he WANTS to play. The thought brings succor. It’s the pinprick of light in an otherwise dark cultural firmament. That the light does shine, and indeed, the darkness has comprehended it not. Never will.

    That’s where I am with Beattie, Mat Johnson, and (until I recently, embarrassingly, found out he doesn’t seem to be black) Adam Johnson. I do get what you’re saying about “Blacker”, which makes hellacious amounts of sense (btw, check out Branford’s “The Black Keys”), but I have to press you on this: if Oscar can be who he is, why can’t Paul Beattie? I clearly need to re-read him, that’s the thing.

    You do me a solid by engaging, and I am grateful. I suggest we do it more often.

  11. il’ja!

    “You do me a solid by engaging, and I am grateful. I suggest we do it more often.”

    Keep this up and I’m moving to the Ukraine!

    A) Ooops: I wasn’t dissing Wyn and Bran, I just meant that their coming seemed, at first, to herald a kind of movement… but it turned out that the “movement” got locked up in upper middle-class display cases (eg Lincoln Center) and was more curatorial than forward-surging. Maybe the Marsalis Dynasty seeded, to some extent, the Silver Age we’re enjoying *now*?

    I grew up in (on?) the vapors of my father’s turpentine (he was a figurative painter who went to Art School on the GI Bill) and the sound that went with that smell was Jazz… he had a *massive* collection that he added to, substantially, as a radio DJ, in late-’50s L.A., with his own late night Jazz show… his moniker was (the unimprovable) “The Jazz Prophet”!

    His Jazz passion was mixed up with political militancy (he poured his soul into a pan-Africanist project in Chicago, in the late -’60s, called the “Afro Arts Theater”, where he was friends with a innovative band leader named Phil Cohran). The Jazz my father played was primarily Coltrane and anything else with a mystically raging, radical edge. Sorry to say I didn’t like the stuff very much at the time (I was c. 10), but when the Marsalis clan “blew up”, years later, in the ’80s, they felt very… antiseptic to me! Laugh. And slightly conservative. But I rated the musicianship highly! And the suits!


    B) Is Beatty problematizing, or deconstructing, stereotypes, in his “work”, or simply stirring them around the stereotypical pot? There are two references to fried chicken in the first ten pages of The Sellout, watermelon is a plot device, ditto “weed”. These were topical slurs in Red Fox’s 1960s and Richard Pryor’s 1970s, when mainstream America could pretend that non-Appalachian Whites ate greaseless meals in their more-refined homes in their more-refined ways and that only Negroes and a rebellious bunch of suburban runaways called “Hippies” did drugs ; post “Honey Boo Boo” and “Breaking Bad” these stereotypes seem dated. To rely so heavily on them, still, is lazy and more about doing the slimy subconscious work of keeping them around than rendering them harmless via overuse. This book is at least forty years too late in its racist jargon. Birth of a Nation used fried chicken as a visual racial epithet in 1915. (And even the cover art: lawn jockeys? yawn). So, that’s the sociological complaint.

    The literary complaint is, specifically, that Paul Beatty has learned how to make books that publishers will buy from him, but he doesn’t know to organize and deliver his ideas or even his sentences in such a way as to create a compellingly fully-realised NOVEL (in my sense of the word, and I believe in a broad church of the Novel). The Sellout is a barrage of riffs (and riffs within riffs; Beatty riffs the way compulsive punners pun and with just as much hilarity). The intro of the book is the worse, in this regard, by far, and, to be fair, The Sellout calms down and gathers some narrative focus after that bit (sections of the book feel as though they were written years apart, by different Beattys).

    After the intro, the primary problem shifts from “riffs” to “shtick”… “shtick” in that collegiate, callow, corny, H.L-Mencken-ish “comedy” voice. Beatty’s barrage of riffs, and his weakness for low-hanging shtick, never fuse into a whole, for me, and only have their overabundance to offer. Reading The Sellout (to refer directly, finally, to the article we’re commenting on) was like watching several Chapelle-seasons *simultaneously*. My belief is that Beatty never learned to deploy the tricks for rooting a reader’s imagination in the particular “place” of the book’s setting, or within, or beside, the “place” of the protagonist’s psychology… the tricks of sensual empathy that help to disable the reader’s natural resistance to suspending disbelief. His set-pieces are too *anecdotally* phrased.

    Beatty’s talent, IMO, is frozen at the glib-and-facile stage.. precisely, I feel, because not enough critics have called him on his obvious literary weaknesses. He just keeps getting by because Literary Wonderments aren’t expected of him. I’m only saying, in the end, that I wish that they were!

    (forgive, in advance, my typos and uglier errors, as I wrote in a rush before running, late, out the door!)

  12. @Lusty Howell Plums

    Let me just join in here to say that I, too, am glad Steven hasn’t been annoying you. You let me know, though.

    @Steven Augustine

    First, in order to move here, you’ll have to drop the definite article. As much as Vlad would have you believe otherwise, Ukraine is a big boy, and doesn’t cotton much to being relegated to the status of a region of some greater whole, that the “the” implies. Just “Ukraine”. Or “Ukraine – Failed State”. Either one works.

    Second, no offense re Brandon, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Ringo. The tone of my thing up there is misleading: I’m just grateful for the music, and saddened a bit that it didn’t result in more, though, as you point out, maybe now it has.

    I get the lack of urgency you probably felt (context is a HUGE help) in the Marsalis’ catalog. We benefited – probably benefited – from the luxury of growing up without having the necessity of the music serving any overt political function. My mother was an operatic lyric soprano. Her great love, though, was the blues, the spirituals. Without having the slightest idea of what she was on about, we just knew that she called them “the freedom songs.” She was no crusader; she just loved the music. And made sure we were tutored in theory, so my whole life has been about the beauty of the thing, sometime more acutely attuned to its structure, sometimes to the lack thereof. I admit, I was lucky: we had a big house filled with musicians way too much of the time. Humans making soul-swelling noises was just part of the deal.

    I’m also a Christian, branded mostly Eastern Orthodox. The aesthetic of EVERYTHING, doesn’t matter what, matters to us. And the importance of that beauty, reflected in the Russian giants, and particularly – oddly – in Gorky, certainly resonates because of the brutality, the ugliness of much of this history. Maybe too much at times, but I am taken up in the beauty of these things. I am convinced in their call to transcend. I feel you are, too, and don’t mean to suggest otherwise. This is of great help to me on those occasions when I’m too keen to let the frontal cortex just take over – to let the naive empiricist in me get as ugly as he can get, and follow his road map into the world of wonder.

    Which takes me to Beatty and the ease I have silencing this hermeneutic of suspicion, and take it on faith that the man writes it exactly as he is driven to write it – by forces demonic, not pecuniary. And so that’s how he drew his protagonist: dated, ridiculous in his stereotypes. Again, I have NO PROOF of this – you could very well be right. But I think you’re not giving enough weight to his PRIMARY audience. Somebody in God’s green America (code for white women and academics) was going to buy the book, and for whom a sociological telos that is necessarily simplistic and dated makes sense.

    When it comes to literary merit, however, I think you nail it with this: “…a barrage of riffs (and riffs within riffs; Beatty riffs the way compulsive punners pun and with just as much hilarity).” A point that became obvious to me when I felt compelled to read the offending passages aloud. Def Jam Kiev. It’s like the worst of post-bog lounge jazz with the tenor/trumpet simultaneous lead, followed by around the circle soloing, and back to the tenor/trumpet closeout. But it sells, baby. Those black folks can sure swing.

    And this: “… the tricks of sensual empathy that help to disable the reader’s natural resistance to suspending disbelief. His set-pieces are too *anecdotally* phrased.” To single out arbitrarily one facet of American fiction, southern gothic writers get away with murder in a way similar to what you describe. The distinct (dis)advantage with them, perhaps, is that there’s so damn many of them, separating the wheat from the chaff isn’t quite as problematic. Or controversial, it would seem.

    It does, however, raise the possibility that Beatty’s kid glove treatment has little – or nothing at all – to do with race, white guilt, or a degraded critical apparatus, but the most basic of all motives: $.

    Listen, we’re in concord here. I’m tired of “good enough” story-telling, and I’ve got no time at all for hype. War can be clarifying (oh, yeah, another reason to re-think the move east: the Russians have come – present perfect simple), and I lack the resources to waste on the substandard.

    (But not so lacking that it would discourage me from writing 10,000 words in a comments column.)

  13. il’ja!

    Re: the definite article: “world famous” was meant to follow it… (just one of those typos I asked forgiveness for)!

    Re: this marvellous chat: in the age of Twitter, we’re probably thread-felons. We need to find the appropriate venue, one day (he typed, wistfully), to let our data-dumps proliferate freely…

  14. @SA

    “World famous”. Oh, I knew it; I just needed to hear you say it. Even when your fame is well-established (#2 worldwide in buckwheat exports 3 years running), it still doesn’t hurt to hear it.

    “Data dump” Nah. This is good stuff, rare stuff. The Millions is BUILT for this. Damn the torpedoes! That Lydia (who unfortunately held back on editing MY posts, though she likely sat there looking on, blue pencil clutched in a trembling hand) is on board is all the confirmation we need.

    “Klosterman” I have a bone to pick with you there on that other thread.

    @Lydia Kiesling

    May I never neglect to say ‘thanks’ to you guys, old and new, for this site. Some invigorating pieces recently: the kind of writing you can carry around with you and argue with it during the day. Though never too loudly, in parks, near elementary schools, or hipster hookah bars.

  15. Second the motion of Stalwart Millions Commisar Kiesling! A mighy comment stream indeed. Will forthwith print out this entire series and fill in my obviously spotty education.

    Carry on chaps!

    Moe Murph

  16. You guys are clearly better word smiths than me, and the segue into music is interesting, but please. You keep going back to satire by black writers, and how weak Beatty is at the form. Wizard of the Crow anybody??? Satire that will blow your mind and I didn’t read it cause the author is black, I read it because it sounded smart and funny and it was fucking awesome. Colson Whitehead is another great “Black Writer”. Coates freaks me out a bit. But really will we ever cease putting writers in these ridiculous compartments? Can they not just be authors? Whom we read for pleasure and elucidation, stepping into a world I can never experience?

  17. @Heather

    “But really will we ever cease putting writers in these ridiculous compartments?”

    Exactly my complaint, Heather! Exactly my complaint.

    But those “ridiculous compartments” are exactly how books are marketed and conceived. My overall irritation with the ridiculous compartment of “Black Lit” (the rubric changes from book store to book store but the relevant aisle remains segregated) is the critical condescension that allows as deeply flawed a book as The Sellout to garner raves. “Benign racism” is part of the same feedback loop as the more malevolent kind and does its part to lower the tone and expectations and to damage the talent pool of future possible writers with “Black” skin. As a “Black” writer it’s my (no pun intended) bête noire…

    (Also, it’s hard to find, up there in my kilometer of screed, but I noted that African writers don’t, for whatever psycho-social reason, suffer the same critical condescension that African American writers do and African lit is generally stronger as a result)

  18. Thank you Steve for replying to my comment. Much respect for all the commenters in this thread.

  19. @Heather Curran

    “But really will we ever cease putting writers in these ridiculous compartments? Can they not just be authors?”

    Oh, but Heather, unless you’ve ever ridden the Trans-Siberian for a full week across the taiga, you have no idea how cozy compartments can be.They insulate from all those decidedly uncomfy, decidedly complex modes of thought (and bears). And I’m sorry, Heather, but I’ve got Game of Thrones to watch! Just keeping the Targarians straight from the Baratheons is all the complexity I need. (And seriously, if it weren’t for the beards and the fact that they’re usually shirtless, could you tell a Dothrakian from a Dornian? That’s what I thought.)

    It sucks that the western world seems to be opting for tribalism right when things were just starting to get interesting. I do, certainly, see the appeal of strapping every stimulus I encounter in my life into this or that predefined and typically quite arbitrary category. Keeps things simple and everybody’s happy. And noooobody’s happier than me, a WMoP (White Male of Privilege – exclusively engineered to engage in categorically reductive thought).

    To put it another way, when it comes to books, I don’t care where it originates; I care how it reads. I look for elegant, embattled solutions to the author’s stated problem. In musical terms, I’m looking for Beethoven’s Sonata #30, op.109, 3rd movement every time I crack a new book. Six variations, six possible solutions poor old Ludwig van went through and when he died a couple years later, I’m still not convinced he’d found his answer. Write like that and I’ll follow you around the world regardless of what’s listed in your biography.

  20. I can respect the complaint that this book is more about the satire and ideas than the classic structure of a novel. Anytime you are going for humor before drama, though, you often focus more on characters and scenes than the overarching plot.

    I normally prefer a blend of sincerity, sarcasm, drama, and humor, and find anything longer than 2k words that is purely sardonic to be a bit boring.

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