Paul Beatty has become the first American writer to win the prestigious Man Booker prize.
Beatty’s The Sellout, a caustic satire on U.S. race relations, won the $61,000 prize, which was previously open only to writers from Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth — an alliance of countries that used to be part of the British Empire.
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 television show and the book’s narrator, Bonbon. Bonbon is an African-American man on trial at the U.S. Supreme Court for attempting to reinstate slavery and racial segregation.
Beatty has admitted readers might find it a difficult book to digest, but Foreman said that was no bad thing.
“Fiction should not be comfortable,” Foreman said. “The truth is rarely pretty and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon. … That is why the novel works.”
Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, a character study set in small-town America and also written by a U.S. national, was also in the final running for the prize. The final field included six novels.
Founded in 1969, the Booker expanded in 2014 to include all English-language authors. There were fears in Britain’s literary world that the change would bring U.S. dominance to a prize whose previous winners include Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri, Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel. But the 2014 and 2015 winners were Australia’s Richard Flanagan and Jamaica’s Marlon James.
The other contenders this year were Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Scottish murder story, His Bloody Project; Deborah Levy’s tale of mother-child trauma, Hot Milk; All That Man Is, a portrait of masculinity in a fragmented Europe by Canadian-born British novelist David Szalay; and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing, in which a mother and daughter take in a Chinese refugee.