It’s taken months to get here but we know at last that the Man Booker prize for 2016 has gone for the first time to an American author, Paul Beatty. His novel The Sellout, his fourth is a satire that explores race relations in America. It was, apparently a unanimous choice, though a surprise one – the bookie’s favourite was Madelein Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing while popular opinion among book bloggers and Goodreads members was tending towards Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk.
A clearly emotional Beatty told the audience at the London award ceremony that it was a hard book to write and he knows it’s been hard for some people to read. He didn’t mean the language was dense or complex but that the subject is a painful one for many readers.
I’ve not read The Sellout but today a signed copy came through the letterbox courtesy of a Goodreads contact who happened to have a duplicate copy and met up with Beatty on the eve of the awards. How about that for luck!
In case you don’t know anything about The Sellout, it is set in a rundown Los Angeles suburb called Dickens, where the residents include the last survivor of the Little Rascals and the book’s narrator, Bonbon, an African American man on trial at the U.S. Supreme Court for attempting to reinstate slavery and racial segregation. It’s an audacious premise and one that has had some readers.
“The truth is rarely pretty, and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon,” Amanda Foreman, chairman of the judging panel. The judges considered it as a “novel of our times … that takes aim at racial and political taboos with wit, verve and a snarl”, presumably a reference to recent clashes between police and black Americans – the book partly deals with the consequences of unjust shooting at the hands of the police.
I’m delighted for Paul Beatty for whom this clearly meant a tremendous amount and was a surprise. I bet he can expect to see a long line of students wanting to sign up for his classes at Columbia University in the near future. Its good news too for independent publishers Oneworld – their second win in the Bookers in successive years ( the first was in 2015 with Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings). The choice of winner seems to have been well received with critics in The Guardian: and The Telegraph seeing it as a bold choice that could take the Booker in a new direction.
The Guardian commented: “The Man Booker prize has not historically been known for its sense of humour…… But Beatty has achieved the rare feat of writing a novel that is recklessly, scabrously funny, politically of-the-moment and hugely erudite in its frame of reference and its playful invocation of both literary and popular culture.”
The Telegraph called it an act of mischief: ” The Sellout was one of the most instantly readable books on the six-strong shortlist. You can well imagine how the judges fell upon its opening pages with relief amid the mammoth task of ploughing through some 150 novels in six months. But after a flying start it runs out of steam. … Crowning this high-wire act as a Booker winner has an air of mischief – as if the judges couldn’t resist the chance to shake things up and seize a place in history.
It will be interesting to see if this is the beginning of a trend for the judges to pick novels seen as most relevant to today’s society……
I’m disappointed though that they couldn’t have also given the prize to Madeliene Thien for Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (click the title to read my review) Still she has the consolation of just having won the Governor-General’s Literary Award in Canada where she has made her home.
Other works by Paul Beatty
The White Boy Shuffle, his debut in 1996 which is a satire on gang culture in LA. It seems to have been translated from French but I’m not absolutely certain.
Tuff, a 2001 novel about “Tuffy” Foshay, an East Harlem denizen who breaks jaws and shoots dogs and dreams of making his fortune with an idea for film starting Danny de Vito In the meantime he decides to run for in the City Council.
Slumberland: 2008 novel about a disaffected Los Angeles DJ who travels to post-Wall Berlin in search of his transatlantic doppelgänger. As he stumbles through the city’s dreamy streets he ruminates on race, sex, love, and Teutonic gods.
Heron Fleet, published 2013. Set in the future, Francesca is an apprentice in the idyllic, agrarian community of Heron Fleet. She loves her impetuous partner Anya and the community acts as mother and father to her, as its founders intended. But outside Heron Fleet, the world is violent. Only a remnant of city populations, organised into violent despotic scavenger gangs, cling on by combing through rubble in search of food. They are the survivors of an ecological disaster.
He has also published two books of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce and in 2006 edited an anthology of African-American humour – Hokum.