A man is in Washington, waiting for his trial before the Supreme Court. He has never done anything wrong so why is there a case of the United States of America vs. himself? The narrator has to go back to his childhood days when he, the son of a black psychologist, was his father’s prime study object. His isolated upbringing always against the background of racial hated has left its marks and when is father is shot and he is faced with the police’s lack of interest, he understands that he has to do something for Dickens, his hometown which has vanished from the maps, and for his father’s memoir. A fight for equality and to find out who is really is and who he wants to be starts.
Paul Beatty’s novel has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and it is obvious why it has been nominated. At the end of two terms of a black president, the country has to raise the question if anything has changed in the last eight years. Considering the last months’ riots and street fights in many cities between the police and the black community, the answer might be “no” – or even: things are worse today. Thus, Beatty has chosen his topic well, it could not fit more to the current debate. But apart from its societal relevance, what does the novel have to offer?
First of all, the irony is just captivating. The best example for me is the search for a sister city when Juárez, Chernobyl and Kinshasa refuse to be linked to Dickens due to diverse reasons. You have to laugh until the laughter gets stuck to your throat because you understand what has been said about this black town in this scene. Its situation close to the LA metropolis is worse than the most violent city in Norther America, worse than the most polluted and dead place in Europe and worse than the poorest town in Africa. Is there anything to top this? Yes, of course there is – and that’s what makes this novel so outstanding. The narrator invents an upside-down version of segregation and has the white pupils expulsed from the local schools. This reminds you of something in history? Yes, but now things are different. Or not so different at all. The absurdity sharpens the observer’s view on the current state this small town is in.
At times, Beatty has his narrator reflect on what he is doing and what is happening and he comes to very sharp conclusions on why things are the way they are and why people just cannot act differently. This sounds quite serious, that’s what it is at the end of the day, but Beatty found a unique style ignoring all taboos to bring across his message.