Author Paul Beatty on Studio 360

What would happen if a poor black and Latino neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles reinstated segregation? And what if it actually improved things — drove the crime rate down, test scores up, raised the quality of life? That’s the premise of The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s scathingly satirical novel about America’s most sensitive subject, race. The book manages to be both funny and genuinely shocking, like the best of Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. The Guardian recently declared Paul Beatty "the funniest writer in America."

Part of what makes Beatty’s writing so subversive is his willingness to engage stereotypes. His main character, Bonbon, is an African-American farmer who grows famously delicious watermelons and potent marijuana in his Los Angeles backyard. For Beatty, stereotypes like this aren’t just comic fodder — they’re an excuse to turn the spotlight on the reader’s own preconceptions. “I like to start at this base level of how we perceive people, and try to turn that around,” Beatty tells Kurt Andersen. “We look at everything through these blinders, and I’m just trying to pull those back a little bit.”

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