30 MARCH 2017 | KAREN KAO
I’m waiting in line for Paul Beatty to sign my copy of The Sellout. I’ve just heard him speak and now have to ask: why are you dissing my hometown? To which Beatty replies, LA’s my home too.
Grimly hilarious, a galvanizing satire of post-racial America and a Your Daddy joke: these are just some of the judgments already passed. The Sellout is all of these things and more. But now that I’ve read it, I know: this is a love song to LA.
a sunny day in amsterdam
It’s an unseasonably warm day in March and the venue for this Amsterdam reading is packed. Beatty’s up on stage. A big man, his limbs tumble out of his armchair like a ragdoll stuffed into the toy box. When he talks, everything moves: his hands, his feet, his bald pate. The man is jet-lagged out of his mind and he knows it. He apologizes repeatedly for not making sense.
He speaks to his wife from the stage. Do you remember that time we went to the zoo in Washington, DC? There was a monkey named Barack and a white lady thought that was hilarious. She laughed herself silly until she saw us standing there. Then the woman said, some of my best friends are monkeys!
Beatty seems to have an instinct for skewering himself, his friends, his tribe, hell, his whole country. He does it without thinking. Or, that’s what he tells us. He doesn’t write to be funny. He just writes. Here is the opening line from The Sellout:
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.
Beatty is clearly smart, widely read, self-aware and highly suspicious about that fact. Once a poet, he tells us he quit because of the expectations that had started to creep into his writing. He doesn’t want that pressure. He needs anonymity to write.
Now he’s rambling about the time he spent abroad. In Germany, he saw Confederate flags everywhere, apparently the international sign for rockabilly lovers. In Tokyo, there’s a kid decked out in LA gang colors, staring at Beatty. But they’re cool. The kid gives Beatty the chin nod and strolls off. Just like the black and latino kids back in LA who used to run around in kung fu suits.
He did pause at his first Black Pete, the Dutch version of Santa’s little helpers in blackface. The Dutch are ok with that? Not for long, Beatty predicts.
He’s from the westside where the gangs are black. I’m from the eastside where the gangs are latino. In Dickens, the fictional setting of The Sellout, the gangs are both. So you stick by your homies, no matter what. Here’s Marpessa, the love interest in The Sellout, talking about her best friend Charisma.
Marpessa used to say that despite the fall of straight black hair that cascaded down to her butt and her horchata complexion, she didn’t know Charisma wasn’t black until the day Charisma’s mother stopped by to pick her up from school. Her walk and talk so different from her daughter’s. Stunned, she turned to her best friend. “You, Mexican?” Thinking her homegirl was tripping, Charisma blanched, about to exclaim, “I ain’t Mexican,” when, as if seeing her for the first time, she took a good look at her mother in the after-school context of the surrounding black faces and rhythms and was like “Oh fuck, I am Mexican! Hijo de puta!”
This is the Spanish I remember, the words I heard on the streets of East LA. Like put your hands up or get down or I’ll shoot. Until the age of 10, I was Mexican just like everyone else.
When I was in college, my boyfriend came from Wilmington, 9 1/2 deadly miles south of Compton (aka Dickens). Wilmington is closer to the oil refineries of Long Beach, farther from Watts. Mario wasn’t allowed out of the house unless he was carrying a baseball bat.
Mario was a surfer, too, just like the narrator. Beatty never names the narrator. He calls him variously Bonbon, the Sellout and the defendant Me. According to the prosecutor in the case Me vs the United States, the narrator has violated:
the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1871, 1957, 1964 and 1968, the Equal Rights Act of 1963, the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, and at least six of the goddamn Ten Commandments.
And all this for reinstating segregation in Dickens. The narrator knows he’s asking for trouble and it doesn’t bother him a bit.
When you walk the ghetto street in a spring suit, board tucked under one arm, no one really fucks with you. Maybe once in a while a curious stick-up kid might take the measure, look me up and down, and make a guess as to how much the pawn shop would give him for an antique Town & Country trifin. Sometimes they stop me in front of the Laundromat, stare in amazement at the homie wearing open-toe flip-flops, and pinch my outer layer of black polyurethane skin.
“Check it out, cuz.”
“Where you keep your keys at?”
But surfing, like slaveholding, is only a sideline for our narrator. His real job is farming. Satsuma oranges, watermelon, cantelope and kumquats. He supplies the neighborhood kids with fresh milk and vitamins. He brings Code Red marijuana to light up at the Supreme Court.
On Hood Day, the local gangs roll back into Dickens to reenact their bloody rivalries and suck down BBQ ribs. The narrator brings pineapple. Here is the sassy Marpessa, one last time, advising her ex-husband Panache of where the hell she’s been.
“I just want you to know I’m fucking Bonbon.”
Oblivious to the thorns, Panache stuck what remained of the pineapple, skin and all, into his mouth, slurping and sucking out every last drop of juice. When the fruit was dry as a desert bone, he walked up to me, tapped my chest with the tip of Lulu Belle’s [rifle] barrel, and said, “Shit, if I could get some of this pineapple every morning, I’d fuck the nigger, too.”