Novelist and poet Paul Beatty is among the funniest and most fearless writers in contemporary fiction. He has been called “one of the shrewdest cultural commentators, and hilarious cutups, of his generation” (Interview). In a voice both acerbic and expansive, Beatty creates unforgettable characters and haunting settings that strike at the very heart of race, pop culture, and language in America.
With his most recent novel, The Sellout, Beatty became the first American author to win the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The Sellout is a “scathing” (Rolling Stone) story about a modern-day slave owner in Los Angeles. A black farmer (his specialities are weed and watermelons) keeps a slave named Hominy, and makes every effort to introduce segregation to LA. Beatty is frank about the book’s uncomfortable topic – indeed, the discomfort is part of the point. “I wanted to see if I could make myself flinch,” Beatty told Rolling Stone. “It’s about embracing the profoundly profane, the absurd. Because the stuff that’s most inappropriate is oftentimes the most necessary and the most beautiful.”
Dwight Garner at The New York Times had high praise for The Sellout, writing, “The first 100 pages…are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade. I gave up underlining the killer bits because my arm began to hurt. ‘Badass’ is not the most precise critical term. What I mean is that the first third of The Sellout reads 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.”
Rolling Stone calls Beatty “one of the funniest, most searing writers we have. His prose, studded with pop-culture references, has the bandwidth and energy of the best MC in the house, while the books themselves…contain enough caustic, laugh-out-loud jokes to make Richard Pryor proud.” (When reading Beatty’s reviews, one sees plenty of references to Richard Pryor – Beatty seems to be literary fiction’s answer to the legendary comedian.)
Beatty’s writing has been praised as an impasto of the serious and the satiric, a characterization that Beatty shies away from even as he recognizes its utility. “I don’t hate the word [satire],” he told the New Statesman, “but I try to resist it because it’s so limiting… It’s a way of not having to talk about some of the sadness in [The Sellout], some of the hurt in the book, some of the frustration in the book.” When asked in the runup to winning the Man Booker Prize whether The Sellout was satire, Beatty shot back, “Hopefully, it’s just a damn good book.”
His characteristic combination of gravity and outrageous humor allows Beatty to weigh in on thorny issues that include his own experience of racism. In conversation with the New Statesman, he half-jokes about developing a “Richter scale of racism”: “I grew up in California: a little tremor can upset you more than a big earthquake, in a weird way. Little tremors add up. They also signal that a big tremor’s coming.”
Before The Sellout, Beatty wrote Slumberland, about a DJ professionally known as “Darky,” who travels from 1980s Los Angeles to Berlin in search of a fabulous jazz man. His odyssey gives Darky new insight into music, nationality, race, language, and sex. Chris Abani, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called Slumberland “laugh-out-loud funny in many places,” with a “burning wit and satire.” In the London Times, Hardeep Singh Kohli wrote that Slumberland “crackles with innovation, humour and insight.”
In 2006, Beatty edited Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. In Hokum, jokes and funny stories share space with critical essays and commentary from prominent African-American figures from Malcolm X and Sojourner Truth to Spike Lee, Zora Neale Hurston, Wanda Coleman, and even Mike Tyson. Reviewing Hokum for the African-American Literature Book Club, Robert Fleming concluded, “Beatty’s book is funny, clever, and intense. And very, very essential.”
Beatty’s first two novels, The White Boy Shuffle and Tuff, share “the same imaginative originality and skill” (Publishers Weekly). In The New York Times, Richard Bernstein called The White Boy Shuffle “a blast of satirical heat from the talented heart of black American life,” while Publishers Weekly wrote that Beatty’s “language and outlandish characters combine to produce an extravagantly comic vision of the American cultural moment.” The story of an African-American boy adapting to life in a tough LA neighborhood after growing up in mostly-white Santa Monica is ultimately an optimistic bildungsroman. Tuff, meanwhile, centers on a nineteen-year-old resident of Spanish Harlem, who searches for direction while dealing drugs and running for city council. Booklist called Tuff “peculiar, witty, and inspirational.”
Beatty is also the author of two volumes of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce, and a contributor to a slam poetry collection, Slam! Poetry: Heftige Dichtung aus Amerika, published in both German and English. He lives in New York City, where he teaches at Columbia University. He is currently working on a new novel, as well as an anthology of nonblack writers writing on blackness, titled Negro Sunshine. Beatty speaks on fiction and social critique.