First US author to win Booker prize

Paul Beatty's satire The Sellout deals with racial identity and injustice with "savage wit"

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

The five Booker judges cited the novel's inventive comic approach to the thorny issues of racial identity and injustice.

"This is a hard book. It was hard for me to write, it's hard to read," said a tearful Beatty immediately after his win at a ceremony at London's historic Guildhall.

"For me, it's just really gratifying that something that's important to me is also important to other people," he later told a news conference.

Ms Amanda Foreman, chair of the judging panel for the £50,000 (S$84,400) prize, said The Sellout had been a unanimous decision, reached after a meeting lasting about four hours.

"It plunges into the heart of contemporary American society with absolutely savage wit of the kind I haven't seen since Swift or Twain," she said. "It manages to eviscerate every social nuance, every sacred cow, while making us laugh and also making us wince. It is really a novel for our times."

Paul Beatty, winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout.
Paul Beatty, winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Asked about the language, which is uncompromising and may offend some readers, she said: "Paul Beatty has said being offended is not an emotion. That's his answer to the reader."

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.

The novel's narrator is Bonbon, an African-American urban farmer, pot smoker and resident of Dickens, a run-down town on the outskirts of Los Angeles that has been removed from the map to save California from embarrassment.

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 to put his town back on the map.

He becomes a slave owner to a willing volunteer, an old black film actor, and seeks to reinstate segregation in a local school. The 289-page novel begins with Bonbon facing a Supreme Court hearing and looks back on the events that led up to that point.

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".

It was publisher Oneworld's second Man Booker victory, after winning the prize last year for Jamaican novelist Marlon James' A Brief History Of Seven Killings, about the attempted assassination of singer Bob Marley.

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.

This year's finalists included His Bloody Project, Scottish writer Graeme Macrae Burnet's historical thriller; Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Canadian Madeleine Thien, which explores the legacy of China's Cultural Revolution; All That Man Is by Canadian-British author David Szalay, a collection of linked short stories about nine men; Eileen, a genre-bending debut novel by American Ottessa Moshfegh; and Hot Milk, a coming-of-age story by South African- born British novelist Deborah Levy.

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 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.

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 is 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."


•The Sellout is available online from Books Kinokuniya for $25.22.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2016, with the headline 'First US author to win Booker prize'. Print Edition | Subscribe