Clarence Thomas speaks!
Among the outrageous occurrences in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, in which a black man finds himself before the Supreme Court for conducting a “six-month campaign of localized apartheid” in his native Los Angeles, Justice Thomas’s decision to utter something from the bench is the most unlikely. We first see the notoriously reticent justice as a specimen of cool detachment:
There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokens hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor, silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice.
But so heinous are the narrator’s crimes against racial unity that a furious Thomas, who has famously almost never spoken during oral arguments throughout his career, is roused to question the defendant’s sanity. And with good reason: In an effort to “bring people together,” the narrator has introduced segregation and slavery to the black and Latino community of Dickens, Calif., a neighborhood so bad that authorities have removed it from official city maps.
Justice Thomas breaks his silence because, “like all people who believe in the system, he wants answers.” By contrast, satirists, unlike judges (and moralists, with whom satirists are sometimes confused), see any system, principle, or self-evident truth as vulnerable to attack. Beatty is a true satirist, and therefore his irreverence extends to the 13th and 14th Amendments. Like his narrator, he is a “social pyromaniac,” conducting a scorched-earth campaign against piety, whether pertaining to the hallowed Constitutional or the “proud history of [his] race.” There is no fixed moral stance from which the satirist operates, which makes him particularly well suited to take on the pervasive immorality, and inanity, of America’s “dysfunctional plutocracy.”
In this his fourth novel, Beatty returns to Los Angeles, the primary setting for his buoyant debut, The White Boy Shuffle, in which a young poet accidentally attains the status as “savior of the blacks.” Los Angeles is a “mind-numbingly racially segregated” city, from its neighborhoods to its comedy scene, “the epicenter of social apartheid.” Beatty’s previous novel, Slumberland, dealt with another segregation-haunted metropolis, Berlin, where the “inexorable ghost” of the Berlin Wall remained even after its collapse. In that novel, a so-called jukebox sommelier hunts down a reclusive avant-garde musician who, for years, had been producing legendary beats from within (pre-Fall) East Berlin, the “Wall inspir[ing] him like the Skinner box inspires the rat.” After the Wall falls, the two collaborate to create a performance piece-cum-concert to “celebrate the city’s resegregation” by sonically rebuilding the barrier: “The music was so real that anyone within earshot would feel as if they could reach out and touch it. They’d have to figure out for themselves if the wall of sound was confinement or protection.”
Beatty restages this ambiguously divisive act in The Sellout, this time as a social rather than artistic experiment. After painting a line around Dickens’s borders, the narrator admires its “implication of solidarity and community” even as the narrator voices his ambivalence towards his own project by likening the enclosure to a quarantine. Anything is preferable to erasure, even a “…community-cum-leper colony.
The narrator (we only learn his last name, Me) lives on The Farms, an area zoned for agriculture in the heart of a ghetto. Unlike the other inhabitants, he makes his living cultivating the land — “forty acres and a fool” as he describes his occupation, one that hints at his future exploits. Farmers, he tells us, are “natural segregationists” who parcel up their land to allow space for every plant to grow. As Beatty relishes confronting stereotypes head-on, his narrator “chooses to specialize in the plant life that had the most cultural relevance to me — watermelon and weed,” the latter sold under colorful names such as “Ataxia” and “Anglophobia.”
Me was homeschooled by his father, a man as committed to his son’s education as Laurence Sterne’s Walter Shandy, but considerably more demented. A psychology professor, informal neighborhood crisis counselor, and “sole practitioner” of “Liberation Psychology,” which adapts famous behavioral experiments to his own specifically African-American concerns, he subjects his son to all manner of deranged trials. Some are meant to condition the narrator to the harsh realities of racial prejudice; others simply use him as a guinea pig to test current behavioral theories. In one experiment, he places toy police cars, Richard Nixon campaign buttons, and The Economist in his infant son’s crib, then fires off his gun into the ceiling while screaming racial slurs. In another, he publicly mugs him to test a hypothesis about the bystander effect, which holds that people are less likely to help a victim the more witnesses are around. It doesn’t go as expected.
Later, Me’s father is senselessly gunned down by the cops, a tragedy followed by Dickens being “exiled to the netherworld of invisible L.A. communities” by unaccountable bureaucrats:
Dickens was me. And I was my father. Problem is, they both disappeared from my life, first my dad, and then my hometown, and suddenly I had no idea who I was, and no clue how to become myself.
As the first step in his journey to become himself, the narrator attempts to reanimate the vanished city, beginning by replacing the “DICKENS — NEXT EXIT” sign on the 110 Freeway that had been taken down. It’s too tempting for Beatty to resist contemplating future signs that mock some of the perceptions about the community from outsiders: “CAUTION — BLACK ON BLACK CRIME AHEAD” and “WATCH OUT FOR FALLING HOME PRICES.”
The narrator next sets out to bring back Jim Crow-era regulations, including priority seating for whites on buses and segregated businesses and education. The problem is that the high school is already essentially segregated, the white families long since having fled. And so he must establish a Potemkin village of sorts: the wholly illusory and all-white Wheaton Academy, a “sleek, state-of-the-art plate-glass building that looked more like a death star than a place of learning.” In reality, the neighboring school is just an empty lot with a painting of the campus on the gate.
Accompanying the quixotic narrator during his inner-city adventures is his own vassal, Hominy Jenkins, former child actor on The Little Rascals and “living national embarrassment” for being the butt of countless, unbelievably racist jokes on that show. (Beatty reaches Pynchonian levels of zaniness describing lost episodes screened at the L.A. Festival of Forbidden Cinema and Unabashedly Racist Animation.) Refusing to disown his television career, he instead revels in being the embodiment of “American primitivism,” an attitude the narrator, who has spent his life chafing under the “burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it,” envies: “I’m jealous of Hominy’s obliviousness, because he, unlike American, has turned the page.” In an instance where Beatty needlessly oversteps the mark to highlight a cheap irony about the freedom to choose bondage, Hominy also demands that he be the narrator’s slave, reasoning that “Freedom can kiss [his] postbellum black ass.” Hominy’s desire for slavery and humiliation — the narrator farms out the regular whipping to a dominatrix — comes across as belabored and flattens a caricature even further.
The more outrageous the narrator’s social experiments are, the more they succeed. The painted borders and road signs foster a sense of pride in the community and eventually puts Dickens back on the map; the passengers on the segregated buses become more courteous; and the public school’s scores improve (even if it prompts a panicked cover story from the “New-ish Republic” entitled “The New Jim Crow: Has Public Education Clipped the Wings of the White Child?”) The contrast between pre- and post-segregated Dickens is a tale of two cities.
All of these beneficial effects are casually reported to the narrator by his bus-driver girlfriend or the high school principal, which identifies one of the major weaknesses of the novel. The satirical workings seem cursorily conceived compared to, say, how Helen DeWitt imagines the contraption for an anonymous office prostitution ring in Lightning Rods, or how in A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift provides detailed annual accounting figures and suggestions for what to do with the flayed baby skins (“admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen”). Rather, Beatty’s narrator performs some brazen action and backs off, only marginally interested in the results until someone gives him a brief progress report on the wondrous effect of his segregationist efforts or a district judge pops up to provide a rationale:
In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precept, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he’s pointed out the fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality.
Perhaps, but this post-hoc, overly tidy account of a coherent social vision doesn’t jibe with the anarchic spirit of the novel, which in essence works better as a loose framework for Beatty to deploy his comic talent. Bit for bit, Beatty is among the funniest authors writing today, whether describing the Crips applying for NATO membership (reasoning that they could “kick the shit out of Estonia”) or making wry comments on the lackluster D.C. tourist experience: “Not surprisingly, there’s nothing to do at the Pentagon except start a war.” Looking to find a sister city, Dickens is rejected by Juarez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasha (in the Democratic Republic of Congo) for being too violent, too polluted, and too black, respectively. The narrator makes his own list of candidates, cities that “disappeared under dubious circumstances,” including Thebes (the sand-covered Cecil B. DeMille movie set) and the Lost City of White Male Privilege, “a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males).”
This being the same mischievous Beatty who included a presidential candidate speech from the Rev. Al Sharpton in his anthology of African-American humor, Hokum, satirical targets are lined up, easy or otherwise. Beatty mocks those “brass-bangled teacher-poets whose elegiac verse compares everything to jazz;” proposes “Whitey Week” as a “counterbalance to the onslaught of disingenuous pride and niche marketing that took place during Black History and Hispanic Heritage Months;” and skewers a group called the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “star-struck, middle-class, black out-of-towners and academics” discussing the problems facing the “indigent black community” and the meaning of bimonthly. The group is led by Foy Cheshire: philosopher, social critic, entertainer, blowhard, strident opponent of the narrator’s efforts, and bowdlerizer of classic works of American literature, e.g., The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Your Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit for Mark Twain’s masterwork.
Beatty’s voice is as appealing, erudite, and entertaining as any since Alexander Portnoy’s. (Philip Roth’s kvetcher, the Assistant Commissioner for the City of New York Commission of Human Opportunity, is trapped inside a Jewish joke, while Beatty’s, “City Planner in Charge of Restoration and Segregation” is caught in a case of “standard black inner-city absurdity.”) It is a lacerating, learned, witty, and vulgar voice — definitely not pejorative-free — brash and vulnerable and self-righteous in its jeremiad against self-righteousness of any kind.
Clarence Thomas speaks, which is novel indeed, but I’d rather listen to Beatty.