Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour is many things—racial justice commentary, social satire about the sales industry, debut novel, and maybe even a morality play. But at its heart, it’s a good story with a compelling main character who indeed sold his ideas effectively to this reader.
Darren Vender is a Manhattan Starbucks barista. Actually, he’s the shift boss at their location in an upscale office building and he’s good with that. He’s also a young black man from Bed-Stuy with a sweet mom, a future-focused girlfriend, and strong neighborhood support. As they say, he’s an achiever who never “lived up to his potential.”
That all changes when Rhett Daniels, a charismatic CEO from upstairs, taps Darren to come work in sales. The organization’s sales trainer christens him Buck, claiming it’s because of the coffee shop connection. Now Darren / Buck learns to swim in the tank of ravenous sharks into which he’s tossed.
Askaripour takes an ambitious bite out of several topics as he develops Black Buck’s plot and characters. He skewers the sales industry and business in general, especially as it relates to Old Boys’ Clubs. Then he takes on the downsides of diversity programs in companies, and racial justice overall. Throw in a little commentary on gentrification and you get the idea here.
Nevertheless, the author focuses on Darren, the people in his life, and the impact of his life choices on them all. We see beyond the tropes and care about the characters. The plot barrels along like a high-speed elevator. More important is whether our hero is on his way up or down in this fast-charging machine.
Alternately, Askaripour is somewhat heavy handed with allegorical meanings. For example, the choice of Buck as Darren’s alternate name is fraught with potential historical meaning. Is it a reference to the post-Reconstruction term for a powerful black man who won’t bend to the will of white men? Or are the white folks at his new company honestly tying it to the almighty dollar or his former employer? Same thing goes for Darren’s mentor’s name. Was Rhett named with a nod to another famous fictional character?
These questions aside, if you’re looking for a debut novel that’s dynamic, has forceful characters and meaningful themes, look no further. I recommend Black Buck and will certainly watch for upcoming work from Askaripour.
Pair with Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr. This is a nonfiction story with a few strong parallels. Or try Lakewood by Megan Giddings for a dark fictional effort by a young black person to get ahead.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review.