Monday, March 13, 2017

What did the book club think of "The Sellout"?

You never know how people are going to react to books. Sometimes I think I've matched the perfect book to the perfect person, and it doesn't work out that way at all. And sometimes I think the In-Store Lit Group is notgoing to like a book and they do.

Even Suzanne, who started off the round robin discussion, said, "I loved the book, but I don't think many of you are going to like it."

The Sellout is one of those books that has become a must read for many. It had its first pop in sale when it won the National Book Critics Circle Award but really exploded after it was the first American novel to win the Man Booker Prize. Now of course some of you might think the rule had already been changed because Marlong James, who won for A Brief History of Seven Killings, has been living in the United States a long time and currently teaches in Minnesota, but no, he was still officially Jamaican.

To me, The Sellout is the quintessential Man Booker book (though The Guardian begs to differ), densely packed with ideas, and words and pointed humor. There are books we pick because I want to help them get some attention and momentum, and there are others where I think we should read them because we (and particularly I) am missing out if we don't. This was clearly the latter.

The narrator, who never gives his name but can be called Me (of the Kentucky Mees), The Sellout, or Bonbon (most reviewers liked calling him the last one), is an urban farmer in Dickens, California, a agricultural suburb of Los Angeles which was deed such eons ago. You may think that's funny and crazy but there was just a This American Life piece on an island of Hawaii that is privately owned and still kept to the standards of the 1800s, with traditional Hawaiian spoken and no running water. Note that in the French jacket, there's a map of the United States, but the designer did not include California, where the book takes place.

Me's father was a social scientist, a single father who raised Me, and after his untimely death, Me created his own social experiment, in between raising delicious watermelon (including square ones) and marijuana. I think the fact that he took on a slave is a bit overblown. It's Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, who comes to Me and asks to be enslaved, but his other plan, to resegregate, is definitely the result of a Me brainstorm. I'm not giving anything away by saying this takes him all the way to the Supreme Court.

And yes, there's a love story too, and many, many side plots and bits. Three of our favorites: the bastardized black versions of the classics from Foy Cheshire; the racially-charged plotlines of The Little Rascals episodes that came up with more and more ways to turn white people black and black people white; and Dickens thwarted attempt to come up with a sister city. I would say Dave Chappelle is a good comparison for the humor.

I'm not really going to go into any other details, for fear that I say something that gets me in trouble. Let's just say no target goes unskewered. Some in the group thought it was trying to hard to be provocative while others loved it. Note that unlike the French, who renamed and repackaged Beatty's novel, the Italians hewed closely to the American and British editions.

On Monday, April 3, 7 pm (yes, back to our regular time), we'll be discussing Julia Alvarez's In the Time of the Butterflies, as part of Milwaukee Public Library's Big Read. It's a historical novel set in the Domincian Republic.

On Monday, May 1, 7 pm, we'll be discussing Edna O'Brien's The Little Red Chairs, the story of a war criminal hiding out in a remote Irish village.

On Monday, June 5, 7 pm, the In-Store Lit Group will be discussing Yaa Gyasi's Homecoming, which goes on sale in paperback on April 25. It's the story of two half-sisters and their descendants in Ghana and the United States and won the John Leonard Prize. I won't be there (we have a big offsite) so we'll have a fill-in moderator.

Paul Beatty photo credit: Hannah Assouline

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