“The Sellout,” by Paul Beatty, is set in contemporary California. The main character, ‘the sellout,’ is a farmer and the son of a social scientist — a social scientist who ran BF Skinner-like experiments on him while growing up. Though critical of his father, the protagonist ends up setting up his own social experiments — primarily by re-introducing segregation into the unique and isolated section of LA where he lives (or the specter of it, anyway). Also he allows a friend of his father’s to become his slave (at his father’s friend’s weird insistence). Both sound and are improbable, but work within the context of the story. The ‘experiments’ become vehicles for the novel’s convoluted and challenging commentary on race.
It’s a wacky novel that sometimes made me laugh out loud, but I’ll admit to missing a lot of the references. Given that and how little I know about satire or black literature, I encourage you to read Kevin Young’s review for the New York Times, here.
Side Note One: You might be familiar with Kevin Young. He’s an award winning poet who PBS interviewed for the series, “The Great American Read.” I heard him read at an event in Concord, Mass. a few years back).
“Less” features a man in the downward spiral of mid-life crisis. Arthur Less is a mid-tier novelist concocting excuses to be out of the country to justify not attending his former lover’s wedding. To achieve his dodge, he takes up every half-assed international award ceremony and teaching gig that comes his way.
Much of the story tells of his travels and on a pragmatic level, we can relate to the realism and comedy of fretting about currency, passports and transport to and from airports. Interactions with his international hosts also provide comedic relief — particularly in Germany where Less, who considers himself competent in the language, fails miserably to communicate properly. Through the narrator we get to be privy to his botches.
Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the book takes a surprise turn and ends up being, quite simply, a love story. I didn’t figure out who the narrator was until nearly the end. Also an interesting surprise.
Side Note: This novel won the Pulitzer Prize, which I learned during an exchange between characters in this novel, is pronounced PULL-it-zer (and not PYULE-it-zer).
“Lake Success” features a NYC hedge fund manager who is also on the run. His astronomical financial success may or may not have been partially predicated on insider trading, so in addition to fleeing a life cratered with disappointment by a severely autistic son, he’s on the run from a subpoena. He buys himself a bus ticket south in the vain quest to hook up with his college lover in Texas. For reasons not entirely clear, he tosses his cell phone and credit cards into the trash early on, making a man formerly accustomed to serving $33,000/bottle Japanese whiskey so reliant on limited cash that he has to deny himself hot dogs at bus stations en route. Hardly the Kerouac-like trek he hoped for.
The combination of delusion and desperation make his journey read more like an exercise in understanding homelessness and destitution than an intelligent man’s quest for reform or meaning. A classic unreliable narrator. His attempts to relate to people across racial and economic divides come across as well-meaning but ultimately self-serving and trite.
The protagonist’s self-destructive choices weren’t the only cringe worthy aspects of this unlikeable character. Seeing people through his lens of the .1 % was really harsh as well. He takes pride, for instance, in having married a beautiful and well-credentialed woman whom he takes off the job market. Lots in here about what the hedge fund wife should or shouldn’t be, with variations for wives three and four. Ugh! The difference in status and wealth evidenced in his apartment building alone, reveals his world view — floor three, for instance, being occupied by the ‘merely affluent’ while the top floors are reserved for the really wealthy, like himself and Robert Murdoch.
The redemption comes, after many more ups and downs, and is particularly hard won.
A more complete run down of the plot and author can be found in the New York Times review: here.
Side Note One: One of the most interesting features of the novel is that it takes place in the run up to Trump’s election and describes the brutal aftermath as well, a story line that was simultaneously re-traumatizing and comforting somehow. It said: we really have been through something awful and it isn’t over yet.
Side Note Two: In my experience when meeting an autistic child, even without much knowledge or training, one can often guess which parent the disorder comes from. I’m not sure our character ever figures out that it’s him, but we do — his over-the-top studious way of teaching himself how to be friendly by practicing small talk in the mirror while at Princeton was one sign, the other was his weird attachment to a collection of beloved watches.