Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Bonbon Me grew up on a farm in Dickens, California, a city adjoining Los Angeles.  He is raised by his sociology professor father, his mother long gone.  His father is consumed with theories about racial discrimination and spends his time writing about the subject and conducting experiments on Bonbon when not spending time in the Dum Dum Intellectual Society, which he founded.  Bonbon grows up unsure what to do.  He raises the best produce around, surfs, and tries to decide how a man should live.

When Dickens is subsumed by L.A., completely wiped off the map, Bonbon has had enough.  He makes it his mission to return Dickens to its former status, as lowly as that had been.  But how to get attention to a poor, inner-city area that no one is particularly interested in?

Almost by accident, Bonbon hits on a plan.  As a birthday present for his best friend, Hominy Jenkins, he turns his on-again, off-again girlfriend's city bus into a replica of the old time buses Hominy would have ridden as a child when he was a minor character on the TV show, The Little Rascals.  Hominy is consumed by the past and the racial humiliations he and other black men have endured.  He declares that he is Bonbon's slave and shows up every day to do whatever work he decides needs doing.

When the bus incident turns out to have a surprising result, Bonbon realizes he has hit on a plan.  The threat of overt segregation causes the bus's riders to up their behavior and pull together to rail against the threat.  Spurred on, Bonbon, with the help of the local principal, creates a totally false 'exclusive' school which is across the street from the local school where students are mired in failure.  Once again, it unites the students and spurs them to improved academic performance.  The ploys land Bonbon in front of the Supreme Court as he is arrested on various charges and the case is sent ever higher.

This work of satire has garnered much praise.  It was the 2016 winner of the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and one of the 10 Best Books of 2015 of the New York Times Book Review.  Beatty has written extensively about the black experience and how differently white and black society experiences it.  The novel's biting satire and depiction of how prejudice seeps into every institution and encounter spotlights it into a blinding light.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction and those interested in a diverse society.

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