During World War II US troops were stationed in Liverpool at a barracks not far from where my granddad, Martin Nesbitt, lived. The story goes that one day Martin, too old to be conscripted, boarded a tram full of US soldiers. In one part of the car were white GIs and in another, keeping apart, were black GIs.
Now Martin had fought in World War I. He emerged from the mud and mustard gas of Ypres (he said Wipers) with no loss of limb or mind, and no doubt that a problem was better solved with a drink and a song than with a bullet and a bomb.
At the time Martin stepped onto the tram he’d spent the best part of the day and his docker’s pay packet downing pints in his local, carrying the knowledge that his only son was somewhere in the Pacific fighting the Imperial Army and malaria. He was tall, tattooed, and, as my mother told it, pickled.
All of which goes some way to explaining what happened next.
Having grown up with Martin enthusiastically leading family sing-a-longs into his 90’s, it’s not hard for me to picture his younger incarnation swaying in the aisle, waving his arms like an over-exuberant conductor of a recalcitrant choir, while belting out I Met Her In the Garden Where the Praties Grow, Shine on Harvest Moon, Lily of Laguna, or some such.
“What’s got into you fellas? You’re all on the same side. Let’s have a song.”
And so the ‘old nuisance’ (my mother again), refusing to sit down or get off the tram until every man jack had joined in the singing, orchestrated a temporary truce. Think Christmas Day football match in the Great War if the ball was a song, the players wearing the same uniform, and the referee a drunken Scouser.
(Incidentally, tram-gate wasn’t Martin’s first foray into race relations. As a private in the army serving in India during the British Raj he fell in with the country and its people and was rewarded with a life-long love of spicy food, a smattering of hindi and two weeks in military prison for decking an officer who tried to call a halt.)
Which preamble brings me to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, winner of the 2016 Man Booker prize, a “brilliant satire on racial politics in the US” per the Observer.
The story is narrated by a black man called Me (that’s his surname; we don’t learn his Christian name) – the ‘sellout’ of the title – raised in Dickens, a place that’s been removed from the LA map, a “residential agriculture” ghetto “you know when you’ve entered…because the city sidewalks, along with your rims, car stereo, nerve, and progressive voting record, will have vanished into air thick with the smell of cow manure.”
As a present to the ageing Hominy Jenkins, a child star of 1930s “pickaninnies” movies who requests “some racism” for his birthday, Me persuades his bus-driver girlfriend Marpessa to change the signs in her bus from “priority seating for seniors and the disabled” to “priority seating for seniors, disabled, and whites.” When Marpessa forgets to change the signs back and realises the bus has become “the safest place in the city…it’s like the spectre of segregation has brought Dickens together”, Me decides to bring back segregation and slavery and put Dickens back on the map.
This book is savage, humorous, angry, witty, intelligent, and no-holds-barred I-can’t-believe-you-said-that sheer brass necked right from the first line: “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” Beatty has been variously compared to Swift, Wyndham Lewis, and Mark Twain; for me it was the 18th century satirist Alexander Pope who came to mind (and also, a completely different cultural spin, the controversial comedian Frankie Boyle).
There is so much to this novel that to single out any one bit is to skew the whole – but I will anyway. Marpessa’s best friend is Mexican-American Charisma Molina. There’s a vignette (blink and you might miss it) about how the girls came to realise Charisma wasn’t black like Marpessa, which was “the day Charisma’s mother stopped by to pick her up from school.” They hadn’t realised before because “blackness” wasn’t about “skin colour or hair texture” but about “walk and talk”.
It’s a detail that resonates with an early memory I have of playing with two little girls (exactly like me, as far as I knew). Some other kids started spitting and name calling: chink, nigger-lover. Back home my mother tried to explain. But how to you ‘explain’ racism to a five year old?
By the way, I claim no credit from that story. I didn’t like being spat at and called names so didn’t play with those girls again. If I tried to fit myself into Me’s social scientist father’s “theory of Quintessential Blackness” I’d be “Stage I…Neophyte Negro…exemplars of how self-hatred can compel one to value mainsteam acceptance over self-respect and morality.” My mother would probably have been “Stage III…Race Transcendentalism…fights oppression and seeks serenity.” Martin Nesbitt, on the other hand, would be Me’s own “Stage IV…Unmitigated Blackness…simply not giving a fuck” alongside “Richard Pryor…Bjork…the Wu-Tang Clan” and “essays passing for fiction.”
When I was in my teens, almost forty years after he boarded that tram in Liverpool, Martin would tell me he’d hate to be black and thinking I knew it all, as teenagers do, I decided he was ‘racist’. Of course now I know what he meant: that as a Catholic lad from the Irish dock-area slums of (then) sectarian Liverpool, whatever shit he’d shovelled (to paraphrase one of the Sellout’s section headings) there’d have been spades more if he hadn’t been white – and he’d have been shovelling still.
A closing vignette: the day after President Obama’s inauguration, Me watches his father’s friend wave the US flag for the first time because “he felt like the country…had finally paid off its debts.” Me’s response is to ask him “And what about the Native Americans? What about the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the poor, the forests, the water, the air, the fucking California condor? When do they collect?”
It there’s a finer way to close the book or this blog-post, I can’t think of it.
Rating: **** one of the best books I’ve read this year.