Sameer Rahim in The Telegraph:
When Barack Obama became President of the United States, many hoped the nation’s racial traumas might start to heal. Instead, his presidency has exposed disturbing bigotry and anger, notably in this election year. For African-American writers this paradox is a particular problem. How to write literature dramatising racial oppression when a black man is in the White House? The approach of Paul Beatty, born in 1962 in Los Angeles, is to throw caution to the wind. His fourth novel, The Sellout, is an outrageous scattergun satire taking aim at racism and what racism has done to black Americans. Earlier this year, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is now on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. The Sellout aims to do for race relations what Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – a favourite novel of Beatty’s – did for the Second World War. The novel begins with our narrator Bonbon on trial at the Supreme Court. His opening line: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” It’s a fair reflection of the book’s gleefully provocative tone. What he is actually on trial for is – wait for it – trying to reinstitute slavery and segregation in his Los Angeles suburb.
The ghetto is called Dickens (a nod to another literary inspiration) and resembles the real-life Compton. Bonbon was raised by a single father, a thoughtful man who specialises in quietly calming down angry black men. After his father is shot dead by police, Bonbon is on his own. Consumed by guilt and anger, he takes on an ageing black actor and makes him his slave. The twisted logic (if there is one) is that to become successful, he needs to become “white”, and to do that he must first dominate another black person.