This year, I am hosting the Runwright Reads Book Club on my YouTube channel. Its focus is on reading prize-wining books and talk about their reach and whether they are as outstanding as the judges thought.
In January, we read and discussed Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward.
Children live what they learn. Children learn what they live.
That’s the refrain to a song encouraging parents to teach values by example and reinforce instruction with habit.
The Sellout is a novelization of what happens when those values are skewed to begin with. The father is a strict human scientist whose pet subject is the son who he raises without the influence of a mother, the nurturing character who might have spoken with the voice of reason and helped curtail some of the experiments the father but his son through. But alone and free to do as he willed, the father put this son through a battery of tests ranging from shock impulses to classical conditioning. Given an audience, the father would convince you that his actions, while they are immediately destructive, are all for the greater good. And in Dickens, California, his unnamed son becomes the universal victim of abuse, repeating the cycle and hurting others with nary a moment of remorse. It is this attitude that brings him to the steps of the Supreme Court where he is to answer charges for owning a slave who he whips with frequency even while he tries to convince his reader that he does it unwillingly. It is through these lens that this unnamed character, this representative of the people, sees enslavement and segregation as an acceptable way to compel improved racial pride and thus forces upon us, that selling one’s birthright is good, necessary even, if the money will be put to good use.
Much like the father is willing to sacrifice his son for the greater good, author Paul Beatty uses the complex relationship between a single black father and his son, one of the greatest minority relationships in our society, to explore historical racial attitudes in the United States, uses the absentee mother to force sympathy for his dysfunctional attitude towards women, and the police correspondent-turned-victim to illuminate and excoriate an in-justice system that would fail to indict the officers who killed a father but would rather prosecute his son for seeking to continue his legacy.
I found the author smart, perhaps more thoughtful and sophisticated than the level that a book peppered with cheap, derogatory curse words could achieve and I could not escape Beatty’s voice, which meant I couldn’t fully get into the story and see the main character as anyone but the author. The Sellout is a catalog of idioms and comical historical references, many of whose inclusion felt like attempts at establishing connection, and which missed the mark for me.
More of my thoughts here