Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout , a blistering satire about race in America, won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday, marking the first time a U.S. 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,” 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 U.S. 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 U.S., 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.
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.
Using scathing humor to address serious themes came naturally to Mr. 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.”
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.
This year’s finalists included His Bloody Project by Scottish writer Graeme Macrae Burnet, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Canadian Madeleine Thien, All That Man Is by Canadian-British author David Szalay, Eileen by American novelist Ottessa Moshfegh and Hot Milk by the South African-born British novelist Deborah Levy. — New York Times News Service