Times they aren't a-changing

Paul Beatty says he believes The Sellout will push readers out of their comfort zone. Picture / AP
Paul Beatty says he believes The Sellout will push readers out of their comfort zone. Picture / AP

Paul Beatty's The Sellout, which this week won the Man Booker Prize, has been applauded for appearing as racial tensions threaten to tear America apart and the spectre of Donald Trump looms large. Yet the book, which made Beatty the first American to win the prestigious fiction award, was seven years in the writing.

The Sellout, a stinging satire of race and class in the United States that has drawn comparisons to Richard Pryor and Mark Twain, has won the Man Booker Prize.

Judges said Beatty's provocative book was a satire to rank with the classics, and as timely as the evening news.

Beatty sees things differently.

"People keep on referring to the timing of the book. I think it's nice to know it has some relevance," he told Judith Woods of the Daily Telegraph. "But to me, this is a book about shifting borders. Times don't really change.

"For some people, the racism issue is old news; for others, it's a wake-up call. We all pick and choose when we want to listen; when Obama goes on television and addresses the nation it forces certain people to pay attention to the police shootings, but there are communities where it's part of their everyday experience."

In this respect, the election of a black man not just once but twice to the White House appears to have made little difference to the institutionalised racism at the heart of the US.

"Obama was the president he said he would be, one who said he was going to assassinate bin Laden and reform healthcare," is Beatty's cryptic response. "He did a good job, but was there a new dawn? Let's just say that people might miss him at some level when the new incumbent settles in."

Beatty believes that Trump will lose, but points out that he has a real constituency in the country.

"Trump didn't come out of nowhere - he represents a part of America that's out there," he said. "We can't pretend it doesn't exist."

At Woods' suggestion that The Sellout can leave a reader thinking being black virtually constitutes a fulltime job, he laughed in agreement. "Yes, being black is a fulltime job: sometimes you are invisible, other times you are hyper-visible. Sometimes you are welcome, other times you are not. The thermostat is always moving and you have to keep adapting to find some comfort level. Richard Pryor used to talk about going to Africa and people there telling him he was white. Even though he was black, he just wasn't black enough."

Historian Amanda Foreman, who chaired the judging panel, said the book "plunges into the heart of contemporary American society, and with absolutely savage wit - the kind I haven't seen since [Jonathan] Swift or [Mark] Twain".

The Sellout 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 US Supreme Court for attempting to reinstate slavery and racial segregation.

The book has been likened to the comedy of Pryor and Chris Rock, and Beatty goes where many authors fear to tread. Racial stereotypes, offensive speech and police killings of black men are all subject to his scathing eye.

Beatty acknowledged that The Sellout "was a hard book - both to read and to write - and would push readers out of their comfort zone".

"I knew people could misread the book really easily," he told reporters.

"I think people get caught up in certain words and their brains lock, certain ideas and their brains lock." Beatty was awarded the 50,000 pound ($85,380) prize by Prince Charles' wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, during a black-tie ceremony at London's medieval Guildhall.

"I don't want to get all dramatic, like writing saved my life," said 54-year-old Beatty, who has written three previous novels. "But writing's given me a life.

"I'm just trying to create space for myself - hopefully that creates space for others," added the visibly emotional author as he accepted the prize.

Foreman said The Sellout, which mixes pop culture, philosophy and politics with humour and anger, sets out to "eviscerate every social taboo". "This is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon," she said. "That is why the book works - because while you're being nailed, you're being tickled."

The five judges met for a marathon four hours to choose the winner from among six finalists, whittled down from 155 submissions. Foreman said the decision for Beatty's work was unanimous.

- AP, Telegraph Group Ltd

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