Although I haven’t read Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, I will now, for it’s just won the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award. I’ve found the Booker Prize a reliable source for good literature: that’s the way I originally came upon Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet (its sequel, Staying On, won the Booker in 1977), a book that I keep recommending to people and which nobody ever reads (note that Christopher Hitchens also thought the book was marvelous). Other Booker winners I loved were Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road (1995), part of her Regeneration Triology, a mesmerizing account of soldiers and their psychiatric treatment in World War I (read all three books), and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2002, I haven’t seen the movie), which was a masterpiece of imaginative fiction despite its religious overtones. Finally, although Ian McEwan won for Amsterdam (1998), I still prefer his runner-up novel Atonement (2001), one of the finest books of the last several decades.
The New York Times describes Beatty’s award:
The five Booker judges, who were unanimous in their decision, cited the novel’s inventive comic approach to the thorny issues of racial identity and injustice.
With its outrageous premise and unabashed skewering of racial stereotypes, “The Sellout” is an audacious choice for the judges, who oversee one of the most prestigious awards in literature.
“The truth is rarely pretty, and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon,” Amanda Foreman, the head of the judging panel, said at a press briefing in London before the winner was announced. “It plunges into the heart of contemporary American society.”
And a precis of the plot:
The novel’s narrator is an African-American urban farmer and pot smoker who lives in a small town on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Brought up by a single father, a sociologist, the narrator grew up taking part in psychological studies about race. After his father is killed by the police during a traffic stop, the protagonist embarks on a controversial social experiment of his own, and ends up before the Supreme Court.
He becomes a slave owner to a willing volunteer, an elderly man named Hominy Jenkins who once played understudy to Buckwheat on “The Little Rascals,” and seeks to reinstate segregation in a local school.
In his acceptance speech, Mr. Beatty waded into the raging debate about cultural appropriation. “Anybody can write what they want,” he said. “Cultural appropriation goes every direction.’’
Yay for that last remark! Beatty was able to win because although the Booker used to be restricted only to authors from Britian, Ireland, and other Commonwealth countries, it’s now open to any novel written in English and published in Britain.
And do read The Raj Quartet! It is the greatest unappreciated English novel (or, rather, five novels) of the twentieth century.
Here are all the nominees; caption and photo from WSFA12.