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Paul Beatty has become the first American author to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize for his book “The Sellout”, a stinging satire of race and class in the United States.
Beatty’s work has drawn comparisons to both US comedian Chris Rock and literary giant Mark Twain.
Judges said Beatty’s provocative book was a satire to rank with the classics, and as timely as the evening news.
Historian Amanda Foreman, who chaired the judging panel, said the book “plunges into the heart of contemporary American society, and with absolutely savage wit – the kind I haven’t seen since [Jonathan] Swift or [Mark] Twain”.
“The Sellout” is set in a rundown Los Angeles suburb called Dickens, where the residents include the last survivor of the Little Rascals and the book’s narrator, Bonbon, an African-American man on trial at the US Supreme Court for attempting to reinstate slavery and racial segregation.
The book has been likened to the comedy of Richard Pryor and Chris Rock, and Beatty goes where many authors fear to tread. Racial stereotypes, offensive speech and police killings of black men are all subject to his scathing eye.
Beatty acknowledged that “The Sellout” was a hard book – both to read and to write – and would push readers out of their comfort zone.
“I knew people could misread the book really easily,” he told reporters.
“I think people get caught up in certain words and their brains lock, certain ideas and their brains lock.”
‘Writing’s given me a life’
Beatty was awarded the £50,000 (55,000 euros) prize by Prince Charles’s wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, during a black-tie ceremony at London’s medieval Guildhall.
“I don’t want to get all dramatic, like writing saved my life,” said 54-year-old Beatty, who has written three previous novels. “But writing’s given me a life.
“I’m just trying to create space for myself – hopefully that creates space for others,” added the visibly emotional author as he accepted the prize.
Foreman said “The Sellout”, which mixes pop culture, philosophy and politics with humour and anger, sets out to “eviscerate every social taboo”.
“This is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon,” she said. “That is why the book works – because while you’re being nailed, you’re being tickled.”
‘Strange and difficult times’
The five judges met for a marathon four hours Tuesday to choose the winner from among six finalists, whittled down from 155 submissions. Foreman said the decision for Beatty’s work was unanimous.
Chris White, fiction buyer for bookstore chain Waterstone’s, called Beatty’s book “the most significant novel to have emerged in these strange and difficult times”.
Foreman said the book spoke to “the complexities that modern society is confronting now”, including cultural debates about racism, diversity and who has the right to tell certain stories.
Beatty said no single book could, or should, encapsulate the diversity of experience.
“We just need a bigger shelf,” he said. “Hopefully my winning this is a sign of that.”
Founded in 1969 and previously open only to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, the Booker expanded in 2014 to include all English-language authors.
There were fears in Britain’s literary world that the change would bring US dominance to a prize whose previous winners include Salman Rushdie, JM Coetzee, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel. But the 2014 and 2015 winners were Australia’s Richard Flanagan and Jamaica’s Marlon James.
One other American novel was among the finalists: Ottessa Moshfegh’s twist on the psychological thriller, “Eileen”.
Bookies had considered Beatty a longshot. The favourite was Canada’s Madeleine Thien for “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”, the story of two families struggling through China’s tumultuous history in the 20th century.
The other contenders were Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Scottish murder story “His Bloody Project”; Deborah Levy’s tale of mother-child trauma “Hot Milk”; and “All That Man Is”, a portrait of masculinity in a fragmented Europe by Canadian-born British novelist David Szalay.
The prize, subject to intense speculation and a flurry of betting, usually brings the victor a huge boost in sales and profile.
Apart from Levy, a 2012 Booker finalist for “Swimming Home”, most of this year’s contenders are relatively unknown. But Foreman called them “the household names of the future”.