Paul Beatty has become the first American author to win the Man Booker Prize for his satirical book The Sellout which was described as “a novel of our times” by judges.
The Sellout examines race relations in contemporary America and is narrated by African-American BonBon whose hometown of Dicks in Los Angeles county has been removed from the map to save California from embarrassment.
BonBon ends up in the Supreme Court after attempting to reinstitute slavery and segregation in the local school as a means of bringing about civic order.
Beatty, 54, was born in LA, California and now resides in New York. He was handed the award and £50,000 prize money at a ceremony at The Guildhall in central London attended by The Duchess of Cornwall.
The Sellout is Beatty’s fourth novel and his success follows in the footsteps of previous winners that include Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie.
Announcing the win, chair of judges Amanda Foreman, acknowledged the book’s timeliness due to it dealing with the “complexities that modern society is confronting with”, adding that one of those issues was the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the last few years.
Foreman revealed the judging panel had three books that they “felt particularly strongly about” but had opted for Beatty’s novel after four hours of deliberations on Tuesday, calling his writing “a high wire act”.
She said: “The Sellout is one of those very rare books that is able to take satire, which is in itself a very difficult subject and not always done well, and it plunges into the heart of contemporary American society and, with absolutely savage wit, of the kind I haven’t seen since Swift or Twain, both manages to eviscerate every social taboo and politically correct, nuanced, every sacred cow, and while both making us laugh, making us wince.
“It is both funny and painful at the same time and it is really a novel of our times.”
She added: “This is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon but that is why the novel works because while you’re being nailed you’re being tickled.”
Foreman said the panel, which was made up of critic and lecturer Jon Day, author Abdulrazak Gurnah, poet and professor David Harsent and actress Olivia Williams, had set a criteria which included aesthetic, quality and depth of ideas, craftsmanship and whether the novel transported the reader.
The win marks a second consecutive success for independent publisher Oneworld who also received the prize in 2015 for Jamaican author Marlon James’ A Brief History Of Seven Killings.
The shortlist was opened up to American authors in 2014, with Beatty seeing off compatriot Ottessa Moshfegh and bookies’ favourite Madeleine Thien for the prestigious prize.
Moshfegh’s novel Eileen is about a “disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s carer and her day job as a secretary at a boys’ prison” whilst Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing follows a young Chinese woman who flees to Canada in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests
Also listed were British writers’ Deborah Levy for Hot Milk, which “examines female rage and sexuality as well as the strange and monstrous nature of motherhood”, Graeme Macrae Burnett for His Bloody Project, a crime story exploring the life of a 19th century crofter, and Canadian-British writer David Szalay for his novel All That Man Is.