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'The Sellout' Is A Profane Riff On Race And Culture


Dickens, Calif., has disappeared, and almost no one notices. But then the closest person that city has to a citizen of note, an African-American psychologist, is accidentally shot by the LAPD. His son Bonbon takes his $2 million wrongful death settlement and decides to try to save his town by turning back history in a way. Bonbon becomes a farmer in the tradition of George Washington Carver. But he doesn't cultivate peanuts, but what he calls the plant life that had the most cultural relevance to me - watermelon and weed. Then he starts a plantation. He acquires a slave, and he brings back segregation. By the way, this is a book by a man who's been acclaimed a comic genius. Paul Beatty's new novel "The Sellout" takes off from there with riffs on race, class and culture that can be pointed, profane and gaspingly funny, even if you sometimes squirm to laugh. Paul Beatty joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

PAUL BEATTY: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: To try and re-create Dickens, who loses it? What happens?

BEATTY: Oh, I guess the town loses itself, and the citizens lose the town. The city, the government, they just kind of erase it from the map. They take down all the signs, which is kind of an obverse situation of what happens in LA 'cause everybody's usually trying to claim their space. And, you know, every 10-block radius becomes its own neighborhood to distinguish it from the next 10-block radius over. Bonbon kind of realizes that the disappearance has caused the community to kind of lose its collective identity a little bit. You know, at the behest of his - one of his few friends, this old black man named Hominy Jenkins, who is the last surviving little rascal - and they decide to restore the community, put it back on the map.

SIMON: How else does Bonbon remake Dickens?

BEATTY: Well, one of the first things he does is he kind of demarcates the neighborhood. You know, he draws a line around the neighborhood saying this is us. He segregates the school, which is kind of all black and all Latino. He...

SIMON: ...Separates the wheat from the chaff.

BEATTY: He weeds - yeah the school's called (laughter) Chaff Elementary. And he does some fairly ingenious ways of racially segregating an already segregated community and school system and all these other kind of things.

SIMON: What's he call it - localized apartheid, right?

BEATTY: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

SIMON: Well, tell us more about Hominy. He becomes - well, Hominy is Bonbon's one slave.

BEATTY: Yeah, involuntarily. Bonbon is always trying to free him, but Hominy refuses freedom for most of the book, I think. And Hominy's kind of an inspiration to him in the community. He's kind of the only famous person in the community, so people actually occasionally come to Dickens looking for Hominy.

SIMON: People who watched "Little Rascals" will be thinking Buckwheat. Is that OK?

BEATTY: Yeah. Well, he was Buckwheat's understudy.

SIMON: Well, there's an astonishing riff I would like to get you to read. And we'll warn people for unspecific reasons. Everybody's going to find a little something to be offended by in this passage.

BEATTY: (Laughter). This is chapter six.

SIMON: Right. Bonbon is kind of musing.

BEATTY: (Reading) They say pimping ain't easy, well, neither is slaveholding. Like children, dogs, dice and overpromising politicians and apparently prostitutes, slaves don't do what you tell them to do. And when you're 80-some-year-old black thrall has maybe fifteen good minutes of work in him a day and enjoys the [expletive] out of being punished, you don't get many of the plantation perks you see in the movies either. No woe is me, "Go Down, Moses" field singing, no pillowy soft black breast to nuzzle up to, no feather dusters. No one says by-and-by, no fancy dinners replete with candelabra and endless helpings of glazed ham, heaping spoonfuls of mashed potatoes and the healthiest looking greens known to mankind. I never got to experience any of that unquestioned trust between master and bondman. I just owned a wizened old black man who knew only one thing - his place.

SIMON: That just makes your head swim. Tell us if there's anything else going on there.

BEATTY: I don't know, I guess it comes from - I have, like, all these images of "Gone With The Wind" and all these other movies - all these, you know, plantation movies in my head. And just the way that people relate to the antebellum United States. I just thought it was funny, like, how this guy handled having a slave. Like, what does that mean? You know, Hominy's like a bit of a masochist so he wants the guy to beat him. And the guy's uncomfortably beating him so he figures out a funny way for Hominy to get his weekly beatings that he needs. And, you know, it's the discomfiture with what freedom is, what it entails, what responsibilities do you have.

SIMON: When you write a book like this, with breathtaking comic riffs, if you hit on 90 percent of those jokes, there's still the 10 percent that might get people upset. And, you know, it's not always a percentage game, is it?

BEATTY: I mean, I think that's a - I don't write, like, not to offend or I don't write to offend either. You know, I write to say what I have to say. And with a lot of good writing, it works on - hopefully, you know, it works on a number of levels - there's a joke, there's the joke inside the joke, and then there's the serious bit in the joke, you know, in the sentences and the language and the tempo of the book. I don't write thinking that everyone's going to necessarily understand everything. I think - you know, you have to bring a lot of stuff. You've got to bring some vulnerability to what I write, and it's definitely not easy to write. I think for some people it's not necessarily easy to read. I tend to like stuff that, you know, you close the book and the material's just really sitting on your chest, you know, even if it's funny, you're laughing, you're crying, whatever you're doing. And it's just, you've got to deal with something. Humor's a good way to address really serious things.

SIMON: Paul Beatty, his new novel - "The Sellout." Thanks so much for being with us.

BEATTY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.