Paul Beatty won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday evening in London, becoming the first American ever to take home the prestigious award. His satirical novel “The Sellout” beat five other finalists for the $60,000 prize, which also essentially guarantees substantial new sales and interest around the world.
Amanda Foreman, chair of the Booker judges, called “The Sellout” “a novel for our times. . . . Its humor disguises a radical seriousness. Paul Beatty slays sacred cows with abandon and takes aim at racial and political taboos with wit, verve and a snarl.”
Originally published last year in the United States, “The Sellout” is an outrageously funny satire of American race relations. The protagonist, a black man whose father was killed by police, wants to reinstitute segregation in his California town. He eventually lands before the Supreme Court in a bizarre case involving slavery. “The Sellout” also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in March.
Beatty was born in Los Angeles in 1962 and started his writing career as a poet. A decade ago, he complained that “the defining characteristic of the African American writer is sobriety.” In many ways, his career has been a corrective to that tone. He has written two other comic novels, and in 2006, he edited a collection of African American humor called “Hokum.”
Jabari Asim, editor of the NAACP’s journal, the Crisis, said he was not surprised by the news. “Beatty’s gifts have been apparent since he published ‘Big Bank, Take Little Bank’ so many years ago,” Asim said. “I remember Kevin Powell telling me something like, ‘You need to pay attention to this man. He’s doing some very creative things with language.’ But even then, the take-no-prisoners wit was already on display, his ability to puncture pretensions and skewer assumptions. The skillful satire and the keen-eyed social observations almost threaten to distract from the rhythm of the prose, which at its best is entrancing and deceptively smooth.”
The Booker contest was closed to Americans until 2013, when the eligibility rules were expanded to include writers in English beyond Commonwealth, Irish and Zimbabwean citizens.
The Man Booker Prize, sponsored by the investment management firm Man Group, is one of the most influential literary awards in the world. The judges considered novels written in English and published in the U.K. during the year.
Last year’s Booker Prize went to “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” by Marlon James, who now lives in Minnesota but was born in Jamaica.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
By Paul Beatty
Picador. 304 pp. Paperback, $16