by Paul Beatty
What we think: In the prologue to his lyrical new novel The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s protagonist turns a snarky, discerning eye toward Washington, D.C., observing that the city is supposed to look like ancient Rome, “that is, if the streets of ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses and cherry blossoms.” He’s waiting for his case -- “Me v. the United States of America” -- to be heard by the Supreme Court. When standing before the jury, ready to outline the complex injustices committed against him over the course of his lifetime, he wonders why there’s no legal gray area between “innocent” and “guilty.” He thinks, “Why couldn’t I be ‘neither’ or ‘both’?”
The court case isn’t a real one, of course -- even in the context of a novel that waffles between gritty and surreal, it serves as a metaphor for the crimes, both physical and psychological, that are endured by its protagonist and his peers. The actual charge against the narrator: He’s attempted to re-segregate a school outside of Los Angeles, in an attempt to call attention to still-extant racism there and across the country...
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