Paul Beatty’s latest novel, “The Sellout,” is far from an easy read. Its first sentence – “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything” – puts readers on notice that comfortable assumptions about storytelling are about to be challenged.

For the topics his novels embrace, his ability to create discomfort and the fun he has with his writing, Beatty is sometimes called a satirist. That’s a label he resists.

“Some people want that Mark Twain/Will Rogers kind of burden; I’m not like that,” Beatty said in a phone conversation. “For me, (being called a satirist) comes with some expectations that I don’t really want to deal with.”

“I just try to be original,” he said. By most accounts, mission accomplished.

805336_641606-Beatty-Paul-c-HanOn Tuesday, Beatty will read from his work as part of the Bowdoin College English Department’s Visiting Writer Series. Bowdoin professor of English Brock Clarke will serve as the evening’s host. The free event is open to the public.

Published in hardcover last year and to be released in paperback on March 24, “The Sellout” is a wild ride through a Southern California landscape where race, identity and history collide in unexpected and frequently hilarious ways. Beatty chronicles the misadventures of a young black man living in an “agrarian ghetto” in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Dickens, a community that has literally been wiped off the map. As “The Sellout” opens, its unnamed narrator finds himself in front of the Supreme Court after having attempted to revive Dickens by selling marijuana and watermelons on horseback and reinstating both segregation at the local high school and slave ownership.

“The Sellout” has been named one of the best books of 2015 by The New York Times Book Review and the Wall Street Journal. Beatty is one of five finalists in the fiction category for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

A native of Los Angeles, a graduate of Boston University with a master’s in fine art from Brooklyn College, Beatty, 53, is the author of three previous novels, “Slumberland,” “Tuff” and “The White Boy Shuffle.” He edited “Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor” and is the author of two volumes of poetry, “Big Bank Take Little Bank” and “Joker, Joker, Deuce.” He teaches at Columbia University.

Reached at his Brunswick office, Clarke said that he has taught both “Slumberland” and “The Sellout” at Bowdoin, and his students have responded enthusiastically to the books.

“I don’t think there’s anyone else like him,” Clarke said. “His sense of humor, his sense of anger, the way his novels are structured. His mind works in ways that other writers’ don’t.”

In conversation, Beatty seemed reluctant to elaborate on the mental machinations that led to the inception of “The Sellout.”

“I have these weird, disparate ideas in my head that feel like they belong in the same book,” he said. “Then it takes me a really long time to come up with some kind of lattice structure that connects them in some hopefully meaningful way. Then I just sit my ass in front of the computer.”

The fictional community of Dickens was inspired by the real-life Richland Farms neighborhood in Compton, California, a 10-block enclave that is the largest urban agricultural zone in the entire Los Angeles basin.

Beatty described his novel’s setting as “just a fictional once-mostly-black, now-largely-Latino neighborhood that’s one of the many amorphous communities that comprise L.A.”

“It’s inspired by Richland Farms but not representative of Richland Farms,” he said. “Hopefully it’s representative of the shifting winds, moods, stressors, absurdities, mysteries and wonders that characterize day-to-day life in Los Angeles.”

In his prose, Beatty is the master of the many-item list where the individual elements build to a kind of interior punchline. For example, the narrator of “The Sellout” says this about Dickens: “You know when you’ve entered the Farms, 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 and, if the wind is blowing the right direction – good weed.”

“There are a lot of writers who have a wide frame of reference and can make all kinds of cultural references,” Clarke said, “but it’s hard to make those references into a novel. I think Beatty’s one of the few people who can. I think he’s one of the funniest writers in America.”

“It’s just how I write,” Beatty said. “It’s not like I’m trying to tell jokes, necessarily. It’s just how I write, how I think.”

He continued, “I used to write poetry, and someone came up to me after a reading and was like, ‘Your stuff is always so funny.’ And I just had never thought about it. It was like, ‘Aaahh! I guess she’s right.’ ”

Beatty seems to view his writing on a more fundamental level. “For me, it’s ‘Is this a good sentence here? Am I saying what I’m trying to say here?’ ” he said. “The humor’s just part of it.”

805336_641606-sellout“The Sellout” is a difficult read, in more ways than one. The narrator’s social scientist father, with whom he has a tortured relationship, is shot to death by the police. Characters use the n-word frequently. Beatty piles absurdity atop humorous absurdity, but underneath it all lies a foundation rooted in real-life tragedy and suffering.

Asked whether he ever deleted material that he felt went too far or crossed some line of good taste, Beatty said, “Not to act that I didn’t think there were things that people might find offensive in there, but, you know, I’m not so concerned about their lines as about my lines. So I guess I didn’t really cross anything.”

One of the most vivid characters in “The Sellout” is Hominy Jenkins, one of the last surviving Little Rascals. Famous for his catchphrase of “Yowza!,” Hominy embodies many of the worst aspects of Hollywood and pop cultural racism, but he’s beloved in Dickens, even though he insists that he’s a slave who should be whipped.

“I’m a huge Little Rascals fan,” Beatty said. “There used to be this rumor, this myth, that Bill Cosby had bought up all the really racist Little Rascals (shorts) and refused to release them. Which was just something I wanted to have some fun with.”

Beatty said that he’s “terrible” about talking about the process of creating characters.

“They’re just extensions of my imagination,” he said. “I trust myself as a writer that they won’t come out flat, hopefully they come out original and let me say the things I want to say.”

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry

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