by Paul Beatty
(From The Sellout by Paul Beatty, on sale now from Picador. Copyright © 2016 by the author and reprinted by permission of Picador.)
A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction
Named one of the best books of 2015 by The New York Times Book Review and the Wall Street Journal
A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty's The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality―the black Chinese restaurant.
Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens―on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles―the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.
Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident―the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins―he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
CITY LITES: AN INTERLUDE
I never understood the concept of the sister city, but I’d always been fascinated by it. The way that these twin towns, as they’re sometimes known, choose and court each other seems more incestuous than adoptive. Some unions, like that of Tel Aviv and Berlin, Paris and Algiers, Honolulu and Hiroshima, are designed to signal an end to hostilities and the beginning of peace and prosperity; arranged marriages in which the cities learn to love one another over time. Others are shotgun weddings, because one city, (e.g., Atlanta) impregnated the other (e.g., Lagos) on a first date that spun violently out of control centuries ago. Some cities marry up for money and prestige; others marry down to piss off their mother countries. Guess who’s coming to dinner? Kabul! Every now and then, two cities meet and fall in love out of mutual respect and a love for hiking, thunderstorms, and classic rock ’n’ roll. Think Amsterdam and Istanbul. Buenos Aires and Seoul. But in the modern age, where your average town is too busy trying to balance budgets and keep the infrastructure from crumbling, most cities have a hard time finding a soul mate, so they turn to Sister City Global, an international matchmaking organization that finds love partners for lonely municipalities. It was two days after Hominy’s birthday party and although I—and the rest of Dickens—was still hungover, when Ms. Susan Silverman, City Match Consultant, called about my application, I couldn’t have been more excited.
“Hello. We’re happy to have processed your application for International Municipal Sisterhood, but we can’t seem to find Dickens on the map. It’s near Los Angeles, right?”
“We used to be an official city, but now it’s kind of occupied territory. Like Guam, American Samoa, or the Sea of Tranquillity.”
“So you’re near the ocean?”
“Yes, an ocean of sorrow.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter that you’re not a recognized city, Sister City Global has paired communities before. For instance, Harlem, New York’s sister city is Florence, Italy, because of their respective renaissances. Dickens hasn’t had a renaissance, has it?”
“No, we haven’t even had a single Day of Enlightenment.”
“That’s too bad, but I do wish I’d known you were a coastal community, because that makes a difference. But as it were, I ran your demographics through Urbana, our matchmaking computer, and it came back with three prospective sisters.”
I grabbed my atlas and tried to guess who would be the lucky ladies. I knew better than to expect Rome, Nairobi, Cairo, or Kyoto. But figured second-tier hotties like Naples, Leipzig, and Canberra were definitely in play.
“Let’s see your three sister cities in order of compatibility . . . Juárez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasa.”
While I didn’t quite understand how Chernobyl had made the cut, especially since it’s not even a city, at least Juárez and Kinshasa were two major municipalities with global profiles, if not besmirched reputations. But beggars can’t be choosy. “We’ll accept all three!” I shouted into the phone.
“That’s all well and good, but I’m afraid all three have rejected Dickens.”
“What? Why? On what grounds?”
“Juárez (aka the City That Never Stops Bleeding) feels that Dickens is too violent. Chernobyl, while tempted, felt that, in the end, Dickens’s proximity to the Los Angeles River and sewage treatment plants was a problem. And questioned the attitudes of a citizenry so laissez-faire about such rampant pollution. And Kinshasa, of the Democratic Republic of the Congo . . .”
“Don’t tell me Kinshasa, the poorest city in the poorest country in the world, a place where the average per capita income is one goat bell, two bootleg Michael Jackson cassette tapes, and three sips of potable water per year, thinks we’re too poor to associate with.”
“No, they think Dickens is too black. I believe ‘Them backward American niggers ain’t ready!’ is how they put it.”
Too embarrassed to tell Hominy that my efforts to find Dickens a sister city had failed, I stalled him with little black lies. “Gdansk is showing some interest. And we’re getting feelers from Minsk, Kirkuk, Newark, and Nyack.” Eventually I ran out of cities that ended in k or any other letter, and in a show of disappointment, Hominy turned over a plastic milk crate, placed it in the driveway, and placed himself on the auction block. Shirt off, breasts drooping, standing next to a sign hammered into the lawn: for sale—pre-owned negro slave—only beaten on Thursdays—good conversation piece.
He stayed there for over a week. Leaning on the horn wouldn’t budge him from his perch, so whenever I needed to use the car, I’d have to yell, “Look out, man, Quakers!” or “Here comes Frederick Douglass and those damn abolitionists. Run for your lives!” which would send him ducking into the cornstalks for cover. But the day I needed to drive out to meet my apple tree connection he was being especially stubborn.
“Hominy, can you get your ass out of the way?”
“I refuse to toil fo’ no massa who can’t manage a simple task such as finding a sister city. And today, this here field nigger refuses to move.”
“Field nigger? Not that I want you to, but you don’t do a lick of work. You spend all your time in the Jacuzzi. Field nigger, my ass, you’re a goddamn hot-tub-sauna-banana-daiquiri nigger. Now move!”
In the end I decided on three sister cities, each, like Dickens, a real municipality that disappeared under dubious circumstances. The first was Thebes. Not the ancient Egyptian city, but the immense silent movie set from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Built to scale and since 1923 buried under the massive Nipomo Dunes along the beaches of Guadalupe, California, its massive wooden gates, hypostyle temples, and papier-mâché sphinxes served as home to Ramses and a phalanx of centurion and legionnaire extras. Maybe one day an offshore storm will uncover it and dust it off, so that Moses can lead the Israelites back into Egypt and Dickens into the future.
Next the thriving invisible city of Dickens formed sisterhoods with two more municipalities, Döllersheim, Austria, and the Lost City of White Male Privilege. Döllersheim, a long-since-vaporized village in northern Austria, just a grenade’s throw from the Czech border, was the birthplace of Hitler’s grandfather on his mutter’s side. Legend has it that, right before the war, the Führer, in an effort to erase his medical history (one testicle, nose job, syphilis diagnosis, and ugly baby picture at a time), his original surname (Schicklgruber-Bush), and his Jewish bloodline, had his crack troops prove their crackness by bombing the town back into the First Reich. As a historical erasure it was quite an effective tactic, because no one knows anything definitive about Hitler other than he was the quintessential asshole, humorless, and a frustrated artist, though you could say that about almost anyone.
There was a bit of a silent bidding war from ghost towns around the world for the honor of being Dickens’s third sister city. The abandoned Varosha district, a once-vibrant high-rise section of Famagusta, Cyprus, evacuated during the Turkish invasion and never demolished or repopulated, made an exciting pitch. We also received a stunning bid from Bokor Hill Station, the unsettled French resort settlement whose rococo ruins continue to this day to rot in the Cambodian jungle. After an impressive presentation, Krakatoa, East of Java, was a frontrunner. War-torn and evacuated towns like Oradour-sur-Vayres in France, Paoua and Goroumo in the Central African Republic, all made strong pushes for civic sisterhood. But in the end we found it impossible to ignore the impassioned pleas of the Lost City of White Male Privilege, a controversial municipality whose very existence is often denied by many (mostly privileged white males). Others state categorically that the walls of the locale have been irreparably breached by hip- hop and Roberto Bolaño’s prose. That the popularity of the spicy tuna roll and a black American president were to white male domination what the smallpox blankets were to Native American existence. Those inclined to believe in free will and the free market argue that the Lost City of White Male Privilege was responsible for its own demise, that the constant stream of contradictory religious and secular edicts from on high confused the highly impressionable white male. Reduced him to a state of such severe social and psychic anxiety that he stopped fucking. Stopped voting. Stopped reading. And, most important, stopped thinking that he was the end-all, be-all, or at least knew enough to pretend not to be so in public. But in any case, it became impossible to walk the streets of the Lost City of White Male Privilege, feeding your ego by reciting mythological truisms like “We built this country!” when all around you brown men were constantly hammering and nailing, cooking world-class French meals, and repairing your cars. You couldn’t shout “America, love it or leave it!” when deep down inside you longed to live in Toronto. A city you told others was “so cosmopolitan,” by which you really meant “not too cosmopolitan.” How could you call or think someone a “nigger” when your own kids, lily-white and proper, called you “nigger” when you refused them the keys to the car? When everyday “niggers” were doing things that they aren’t supposed to able to do, like swimming in the Olympics and landscaping their yards. My goodness, if this nonsense keeps up, one day a nigger is going to, God forbid, direct a good movie. But not to worry, Lost City of White Male Privilege, real or imagined, me and Hominy had your backs and were proud to make you a sister city of Dickens, aka the Last Bastion of Blackness.