The Sellout opens up with the most fraught of American judicial paradigms: a black man appearing before the Supreme Court to hear if what he's done with his life is legally allowed. It's not just any old offense being considered either. We're talking slavery and segregation, remixed for 2015.

In the new novel by Paul Beatty, the thinly-veiled counterparts of Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, et. al. have to decide what to do with a 21st Century black man who decided that, to fix things back home, he needed to bring back segregation. Good thing he has a slave of his very own to help with that very tall order.

We never learn the name of the main character of Beatty's new book. Instead, he gets referred to as Bonbon or Sellout. Despite the childhood nickname, he's not an ice-cold, chocolate-covered treat. The hapless narrator is congenitally uncomfortable in his own skin, an awkward farmer savant subjected to an upbringing full of behavioral experimentation by his sociologist father. What kind of experimentation? The kind that requires a three-day drive to Mississippi so his son could whistle at a white woman in the Deep South. The kind that had him picking crops—including cotton—on daddy's farm while the whole neighborhood watched. These messed-up, non-clinical trials sprang from the hopes of creating a super-brother, capable of leaping over everything and anything bad that happens to black people in America. "'This little nigger not going be like the rest of you niggers,' my father would crow, one hand on his dick, the other pointing at me. 'My son going to be a Renaissance nigger. A modern-day Galileo out this motherfucker!"

All that frantic manipulation created the exact opposite of "a Renaissance nigger": a black man resolutely unwilling to follow in of his super-heroic forebears. Still, even though he gets his other nickname for presumably not being an out-and-loud race man like his daddy—whose unofficial role as the neighborhood "nigger whisperer" saved people from killing themselves and others when it all became too much—the novel's hero isn't quite a sellout either. After an instance of political erasure wipes his fictional rural SoCal hometown of Dickens from the map, Bonbon backs into latter-day slave-holding and institutional segregation in the hopes of trying to create, literally, something from nothing. The question hovering over the book then becomes: Is a black person allowed to do the wrong thing for the right reasons? What about vice-versa?

To be fair, none of this was his idea. After police gun down Bonbon's father during a traffic stop, Hominy Jenkins—the last living Little Rascal, Buckwheat's understudy and Dickens' sole tenuous connection to Hollywood—starts calling him "massa." And asking to be whipped. And gleefully serving as a footstool. The segregation, well, that's sort of on Hominy, too. When Sellout puts fake decals—a birthday present for Hominy that reads "Priority Seating for Seniors, Disabled and Whites"—on a city bus so the older man will give up his seat to an all-too-rare white person, he unwittingly ignites a social shift. The adhesive-backed reminders of indignities past make Dickens' malcontents start "treating each other with respect" and, after a career day where he castrates a young bull in front of rapt grade-schoolers, Bonbon imagines that the threat of re-segregation might have the same effect on the school system.

Part of me wanted to be mad at the ghettofied stereotypes Beatty puts on display in The Sellout. But he seems puckishly determined to humanize them all. Characters who are punchlines in other places—the minstrel coon, the loc'd-out gangbanger, the angry black woman, the slick huckster intellectual—all burn with secret torments and unmet needs that have good ol' racism at the root.

Beatty takes the drama that black people in the United States have had to deal with, slices it open and refashions it into party hats for the apocalypse, making jokes out of every injustice he can squeeze into 288 pages. But if you try and cast The Sellout as any sort of prescriptive, then you become the butt of an even bigger joke. It gives respectability politics the finger and revels in the heady freedom of the absurd, lobbing one preposterous scenario after another onto readers' eyeballs. Like the super-medicinal weed or square watermelons that Bonbon grows. Or the white dominatrixes he hires to whip and hurl epithets at Hominy because it's too much work for him. The book sabotages any attempts to call it a grand pronouncement or make any grand pronouncements about it.

Part of me wanted to be mad at the ghettofied stereotypes Beatty puts on display in The Sellout. But he seems puckishly determined to humanize them all. Characters who are punchlines in other places—the minstrel coon, the loc'd-out gangbanger, the angry black woman, the slick huckster intellectual—all burn with secret torments and unmet needs that have good ol' racism at the root.

Nevertheless, the giant dinosaur footprints of the biggest American obsessions are all over this book. The fixation with land, and who gets to own, profit from and impose will on it. The seductive but false hopes of exceptionalism mythology. Individual legacy and the lack thereof. What to do with black and brown bodies. The characters here are caught up in the eddies of currents that have been chugging for centuries and they're trying to swim against the tide anyway they can. It's ridiculous for Bonbon to think that painting a white line around his town's erased borders will change anything, but the emotional heft of the act illustrates that it'd be even more crazy not to try.

The Sellout pointedly makes fun of the way black people get made fun of and spoken about in the third person, up to and including ridicule from other black people. Hell, the book's entire premise rotates on the axis of the "black person as real racist." And while Bonbon does use an outlawed implement of American apartheid, he's pulling the ol' separate-but-equal to try and improve his community, something the dead white men behind Segregation 1.0 only paid lip service to. It's fitting that Bonbon's reverse psychology (perverse psychology?) transgressions wind up in the judicial arena, because America's courts have always been one of the stages where it gets decided if black people can do what white people can. Once he's in the highest court in the land,Bonbonsimply proceeds to get as high as hell. Because, well, why not?

Beatty's protagonists have always harbored what feels like self-loathing. They talk a lot of shit— about their families, their neighborhoods, their race, themselves. But really his construction of Gunnar Kaufman, Nick Scoby, Tuff, DJ Darky, Charles Stone, and Bonbon feels like a way to shrug off the velvet trap of history's conveniently comfortable tropes. The leading men in Beatty's books have all concocted radical exit strategies to opt out of their daily crucibles. In The White Boy Shuffle, Beatty's first novel, it was an epidemic of suicide as the ultimate act of freedom and self-determination. Here, it's reinstating slavery and segregation.

Beatty's leading men also have a habit of running down their ancestries for the reader. Not surprisingly, their families are all epically dysfunctional, some with forebears who ran away into slavery and others with relations who cling desperately to outdated Black Panther-style posturing. The biological lineage in this book only goes as far back as Bonbon's father, who's presented as the Dr. Frankenstein of race theory. His son winds up as a sort of inverse Bigger Thomas, a bumbling, ideological monstrosity instead of a id-driven brute, and you can't help but feel sympathetic towards him.

Part of the allure of The Sellout comes from trying to parse the sentiment of Beatty's alternate reality. He'll drop achingly sincere gems in the middle of the most ribald, stomach-churning sequences of uncomfortable humor. When Hominy is the guest of honor at a film festival dedicated to the unabashedly racist films and cartoons of yesteryear, a trio of sorority girls (two white, one black) all show up in blackface. An audience debate about the darkened visages ensues—"They are in non-ironic blackface... That's not cool"—and Beatty writes this:

For Hominy, blackface isn't racism. It's just common sense. Black skin looks better. Looks healthier. Looks prettier. Looks powerful. It's why bodybuilders and international Latin dance contestants blacken themselves up... Because if imitation is indeed the highest form of flattery, then white minstrelsy is a compliment, it's a reluctant acknowledgement that unless you happen to really be black, being "black" is the closest a person can get to true freedom. Just ask Al Jolson or the slew of Asian comedians who earn their livings by acting "black."

One of the questions that you'll be left with after finishing The Sellout is if the titular character is suffering from an abundance of racial self-love or self-hate. An argument could be made that he's using the latter to power the former, but even that feels too facile for the swirling, intermingled experience the book delivers. I've always liked the way that Beatty writes about love and yearning. He doesn't suffer the illusion that true love will right all wrongs. Rather, he acknowledges the magical force field that even the most ill-fated affection can temporarily erect against the folly of class, sex, and racial hierarchies.

"It's illegal to yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theater, right?" Bonbon asks after getting shot by a hustlin' academic-type in the middle of a breakdown. "Well, I've whispered 'Racism' in a post racial world." No matter how much you love your self, your hood or your race, as all superhero aficionados know, even the strongest force fields break down. And when they do, the people once protected by unnatural energies will have a reckoning with the world outside, one that will cast them as either hero or villain, no matter what their motivations were. At various points in The Sellout, Bonbon repeats a question that his father used to ask while nigger-whispering: "Who am I? And how may I become myself?" When centuries of bullshit and hecklers on every side dog your every step, those questions feel like the universe's most rueful punchline.

Evan Narcisse is a reporter at Kotaku.

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