This debut by Mateo Askaripour is billed as a satirical novel, a comedy, a commentary, on race and corporate America. In lively first-person narration, readers follow Darren from Bed-Stuy to Park Avenue, and from Starbucks to Sumwun, a tech startup. Darren, nicknamed Buck (for his Starbucks origin) is the only Black guy in the place. His own world turns upside down, as he navigates racism (both subtle and blatant), gets seduced by the money, considers redemption, and also encounters very timely topics. It’s a 2021 book, and one can sense the presence of contemporary concerns such as white nationalist groups on the rise. It’s not a Covid book, but it’s a book of today. Askaripour is likely a writer to watch (check out this piece on Watching Roots in the Age of Trump.)

Jennifer: So, Lara, I wanted to love this book. I did love the writing. I really never lost interest or became disengaged. However, I guess I feel . . . unsure of how to read it. I keep hearing satire. In all honesty, it might be losing the comic sting somehow. I’m not sure. How do you read this book?

Lara: Well, you aren’t the target audience — and neither am I. Askaripour wrote Black Buck for Black men and women as part cautionary tale and ultimate self-help, self-empowerment book. I thought the writing and execution were brilliant.

Jennifer: I’m not sure I agree with you there, but I’ll go with it. I think the target audience is the reading demographic, and the self-help/cautionary tale thing is part of the satire.

Lara: I am going off an interview he had with the LA Times, “Mateo Askaripour is not trying to be divisive when he says his debut novel, “Black Buck,” was written just for Black readers, though white readers are welcome to “come along for the ride.” And he isn’t being flippant when he says he hopes his tale of a Black man swept up in startup mania can teach his readers how to succeed in sales.”

He architects it like a “How to Succeed In Sales” manual, breaking the novel into five sections:

  1. Prospecting
  2. Qualifying
  3. Discovery
  4. Demonstration
  5. Close

And through those sections, we meet Darren, who is sharing his sales secrets from his penthouse, overlooking Central Park, “to help other Black men and women on a mission to sell their vision all the way to the top.”

Peppered throughout the first-person narrative, Darren/Buck, speaks directly to the reader (very The Office style, which I thought you would love) with advice. Things like:

“Reader: Ending a pitch with ‘Sound fair?’ is a common sales tactic. Most people don’t want to be viewed as unfair or unreasonable, so they are more likely to give in, especially when what someone is pitching does sound fair enough. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.”

And this…

“Reader: Watch closely and take notes. Sales isn’t about talent, it’s about overcoming obstacles, beginning with yourself.”

And this…

“Reader: Life, like sales, comes with an endless amount of opportunities to do the wrong thing to win. But understand that whether you take those opportunities or not, consequences still follow. And they won’t always be in your favor.”

Heck, Askaripour hasn’t just written self-help for sales. It’s for life, too!

It was brilliant.

Jennifer: I mean there’s waterboarding.

Lara: Of a super asshole racist white guy. And, to be fair, Buck was against the waterboarding. Buck didn’t want revenge against white aggressors like Clyde. He simply wanted access to the same opportunities and experience as white, with the same opportunities to achieve success.

Do you think he got that?

Jennifer: Not so sure. I think, maybe, it seemed to me as if there was a subtle hint that, if you want success like a white asshole, here’s how you can be like him, but Black still. I was a tad jolted by some of it. The kid with Tourette’s. The old man getting kicked out (though it’s “reconciled”). The lack of dignity that is apparently part of being a really great Starbucks manager. I think there’s justice in this book, but it felt off

Satire worked when all the white people keep saying stuff to him like, “Has anyone told you that you look like . . . Eddie Murphy? Samuel L. Jackson? Prince?” Those aren’t the people mentioned. It’s just random Black guys, humorously pointing out that white people often think all Black guys look the same. That’s satire.

I guess it was just serious enough for me to feel a disconcerted?

Lara: It should jolt you. The “humorous” mistaking of Buck for famous Black men was disconcerting because it’s racist. So much of Buck’s treatment at Sumwun is disconcerting. Especially when he proves to be the startup’s best salesperson and the CEO parades him out for media junkets when they get bad press. And yet, I think Askaripour’s storytelling is brilliant. While serving as a bit of a cautionary tale, it’s also one of resilience. He also does a great job showing the different reactions across Buck and his Black friends when things really start to get bad. There are different roads we can all take and consequences for all of our actions.

Without giving anything away, was the consequence Buck received fair or just compared to say, Clyde (the white sales director)?

Jennifer: Buck was a better human than Clyde, I think. He does have biased consequences.

Lara: Knowing we are all flawed, Buck was totally a better person than Clyde. Clyde was total trash.

Jennifer: I also want to ask you a weirdo question. What’s with the biblical references? What were these? Slams on evangelicalism (I don’t think so?) or intrusions of Deep Thoughts? Let’s just take you and I as our “good reader” sample. I’m good with Bible stuff, but I was wondering why the imposition. What was the narrative purpose? You might be not as intrigued—so what were the references doing there?

Lara: You know symbolism and references like that totally fly over my head. I didn’t catch them. I might be a terrible person, or at least a terrible reader.

Jennifer: And another touchy subject. Do you think this handled the issue of racism in Corporate America well? I bring this up, not because I don’t (because I probably do), but because I think I hear a lot of criticism of something called—get ready—Critical Race Theory, and I want to give you the opportunity to vent.

It’s “in” right now to oppose Critical Race Theory. I guess I could grossly oversimplify it by saying that Critical Race Theory looks at how culture and society are inherently racist, and it looks to rectify institutional racism. In Critical Race Theory, you’ll hear people talk about White Privilege. Black Lives Matter springs from this. The opposing idea is that this rally cry actually makes victims out of minorities, rather than empowering them.

I’m not much of a critic myself. I think it’s important to understand how racism has impacted all of society—because ignorance (turning away from it) is not bliss. That said, maybe the book isn’t as complex as I wanted it to be . . .

Lara: As I read this, Sumwun was a tech start up with absolutely no controls in place that would hold people accountable for their behavior. Was there even ever a mention of someone in HR?

If Buck had just completed a week of sales training for an established and respected company in the “real world,” would he find himself standing under a bucket of white paint dropped on him like he was after surviving “Hell Week” in the book? I would hope not. But do BIPOC find themselves experiencing racism in corporate America? Yes, they do. Check out this Fast Company article from last summer: “Racism Is Real In Corporate America: I Left Because I Had Enough.” The author who now owns her own PR agency and sits on the advisory board for the Wall Street Journal’s “Women in the Workplace” Series found herself screamed at, having objects thrown at her, and in a constant state of having her guard up.

I would think that any type of racist belief or behavior that is directed at someone could be a soul-crushing level of disappointment. Askaripour highlights examples of subtle and overt racism in Black Buck, each of which is terrible. Each of which could happen real life. We’ve seen as bad in college fraternities with supporters brushing it off as “boys being rowdy.” Boys that are legally men.

Jennifer: Oh, I am a believer in the validity of systemic racism. I don’t doubt its presence and the turmoil associated with it. It’s soul-crushing.

What else are you reading?

Lara: My pandemic reading slump has passed, but I would say I have come out of it with a stronger completion rate for audiobooks. I’ve knocked out nine books since we last chatted about what we’ve read. The standouts were, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, Zorrie by Laird Hunt, Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, and maybe Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I am still thinking about what I think about that last one.

Jennifer: I guess I’m doing a lot? I read some Lenny Kravitz, some Shirley Jackson, some Patricia Lockwood. I think I’d draw attention to this one: Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier, the white guy with dreads on the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. My husband and I seem to be doing this accidental crash course on social media (watching The Social Dilemma, Fake Famous, Q: Into The Storm, and The Great Hack—plus reading this guy and Lockwood), and I’m now convinced that racism and social media are the biggest dangers of the century.

Next Month!

Join us next time when we come together to talk about What Could be Saved by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz.

Happy reading, Snotties!


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