Paul Beatty is first US author to win Man Booker Prize

Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty poses for photos with his novel The Sellout at the Guildhall in London.
Man Booker Prize winner Paul Beatty poses for photos with his novel The Sellout at the Guildhall in London. PHOTO: EPA

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Paul Beatty's novel The Sellout, a blistering satire about race in America, won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday (Oct 25), marking the first time an American writer has won the award.

The five Booker judges, who were unanimous in their decision, cited the novel's inventive comic approach to the thorny issues of racial identity and injustice.

Still, with its outrageous premise and unabashed skewering of racial stereotypes, The Sellout is an audacious choice for the judges, who oversee one of the most prestigious awards in literature.

"The truth is rarely pretty, and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon," Ms Amanda Foreman, the head of the judging panel, said at a press briefing in London before the winner was announced. "It plunges into the heart of contemporary American society."

The Sellout drew ecstatic praise from critics and writers when it was published in the United States last year, and it won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

A raucous tragicomedy that explores the legacy of slavery and racial and economic inequality in the US, the novel felt deeply resonant at a moment when police violence against African-Americans has incited protests around the country and forced Americans to confront the country's history of racism.

In a review in The New York Times, critic Dwight Garner wrote that the novel's first 100 pages read like "the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility". Other critics gently warned that Beatty's scathing comic style might not appeal to everyone. "Readers turned off by excessive use of the N-word or those who are easily offended by stereotypes may find the book tough going," a critic for Kirkus Reviews wrote in a largely positive review.

The novel's narrator is an African-American urban farmer and pot smoker who lives in a small town on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Brought up by a single father, a sociologist, the narrator grew up taking part in psychological studies about race. After his father is killed by the police during a traffic stop, the protagonist embarks on a controversial social experiment of his own, and ends up before the Supreme Court.

He becomes a slave owner to a willing volunteer, an elderly man named Hominy Jenkins who once played understudy to Buckwheat on The Little Rascals, and seeks to reinstate segregation in a local school.

The competition for the Booker, which was first awarded in 1969, has been even more intense in recent years after the prize was opened to any novel written in English and published in Britain. Until 2014, the prize was restricted to novels written by authors from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth nations. Previous winners include Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje.

The expansion of the prize set off some criticism from writers who were concerned that the Booker would lose its distinctly British flavour, and that emerging writers would be overlooked in favour of literary heavyweights. To the consternation of some onlookers, American writers have had a strong presence among the finalists for the last three years.

This year's finalists included His Bloody Project, Scottish writer Graeme Macrae Burnet's historical thriller about a teenager in 1860s Scotland who is accused of a vicious triple murder; Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Canadian author Madeleine Thien, which explores the legacy of China's Cultural Revolution; Canadian-British author David Szalay's All That Man Is, a collection of linked short stories about nine men in different phases of life; Eileen, a genre-bending debut novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, which centres on a self-loathing young woman who works in a juvenile prison in New England; and Hot Milk by South African-born British novelist Deborah Levy, a coming-of-age story about a young anthropologist seeking to solve the mystery of her mother's illness.

Last year, the Booker was awarded to Jamaican novelist Marlon James for his novel A Brief History Of Seven Killings, about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.

Beatty, 54, grew up in Southern California and was raised by his mother, a nurse and painter who exposed him and his two sisters to novels by Saul Bellow and Joseph Heller. He began writing hip-hop-inflected poetry as a young adult in his mid-20s. In 1990, he became the Grand Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, which led to his first book deal.

A fan of George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut, he began writing fiction, and published his debut novel, The White Boy Shuffle, about a black surfer in Los Angeles, in 1996. He published two more novels, Tuff in 2000 and Slumberland in 2008, and edited Hokum, an anthology of African-American comic writing.

Much of his writing explores recurring themes: human psychology, racial identity and our inability to escape the lingering effects of history.

In The Sellout, Beatty, who lives in New York, amplified those themes, and took even bigger swings at sacred cows by poking fun at the civil rights movement. In the acknowledgments, he says he drew inspiration from the work of psychologist William Cross, in particular his paper The Negro To Black Conversion Experience, which was published in 1971.

Using scathing humour to address serious themes came naturally to Beatty, who has said in interviews that he finds everything funny on some level. Still, he's reluctant to call himself a satirist.

"In my head it would limit what I could do, how I could write about something," he said in an interview published in The Paris Review. "I'm surprised that everybody keeps calling this a comic novel."