Black Buck

There’s been a lot of buzz about a new book that just came out in early January, Black Buck, the the debut novel by Mateo Askaripour. I wasn’t surprised to see it was a pick on Book of the Month, but I was excited to add it to my box. I’m not sure why I started reading it just hours after I got all my wisdom teeth pulled, and indeed, it took me a few days to get into it due to how drowsy I felt, but by the end of that weekend, I was racing through this book.

Summary

Black Buck follows Darren, an intelligent but unambitious twenty-two-year-old working at a Starbucks in Manhattan. One day, Darren gets an unexpected opportunity to join the sales team of a tech startup. From his first moments in that office, Darren is acutely aware that he’s the only black person — and in fact, the only non-white person — in the company. It’s a far cry from his home in Bed-Stuy, and Darren has a hard time overcoming the racism he faces from his coworkers.

As Darren (now going by his new nickname “Buck”) works his way up, becoming a highly important part of the team, he undergoes some surprising changes. Black Buck is a wild ride that shifts gears a lot, causing it to feel like four stories in one. It’s satirical and funny, but also full of depth and even sales tips, making for a unique story that will leave an impact.

Review

Part of why I wanted to read Black Buck is its setting in a sales environment. I work in a company that offers sales training, and while I honestly don’t like sales myself (ahem, don’t tell my boss that!), I thought it would be interesting to see it in a new light. Throughout the novel, Darren interrupts his own story with brief nuggets of sales wisdom you can implement in real life. It’s a unique format for fiction, but I actually found that I appreciated and was even learning from these informational asides.

When the book starts, the tone is generally light and funny. Even if you don’t normally laugh out loud while reading, Black Buck may change that for you. I actually took note of some of the funniest lines and showed them to my husband and sister. Although the story does get bleak in certain parts, the humor perseveres through the end.

Darren is a likable and relatable character, at least in the beginning. He’s hardworking and sharp-witted, he cares about his mom and his girlfriend, and he’s friendly with the people in his community. But in spite of doing well during high school, he’s gotten a bit stuck in life. He’s directionless, or maybe he’s afraid of success. Whatever it is, he’s content being the manager of a Starbucks, even if he’s capable of so much more.

But when Darren starts working in an extremely white startup, he faces a lot of challenges, both at work and at home. Some of his coworkers are overtly racist towards him, and yet no one does anything to constrain it. Darren isn’t a quitter, but it would be so easy to retreat from people who are so openly hostile. Still, he pushes forward, trying to prove himself. But at home, friends and family start to say he’s changing, that he’s becoming more disconnected from his people. At first I found this criticism to be harsh, but eventually, it sadly rang true.

Black Buck is divided into five parts, but I was surprised at how drastically the story and tone changed from one part to the next. For me, it almost felt like four stories in one; I could see Black Buck as a four-season series. I enjoyed the first two parts, even as Darren battled workplace racism. But then things take a dark turn, weaving in different types of loss, drug use, and anger. Darren becomes almost unrecognizable, and it’s no wonder he becomes so isolated.

Part four was the most jarring for me, and I admit, I briefly felt the book had lost the plot. However, my advice is to stick it out, because it leads to a warm, full-circle fifth act. As different as the last 100 pages of the book are from the first, I actually liked how it all worked out. Well, until the very end. The ending left me shocked and not sure how to feel. Be ready to have some big reactions to the last two chapters!

I’ve talked about Darren, and how he’s generally a likable character, even though his story arc leads him through some tougher spots. But Black Buck also highlights a host of other strong characters. Soraya may be my favorite, but Brian really shines later in the book, too. Rose starts off a bit abrasive, but also ends up being a highlight. Then there are the villains, the people you love to hate. I’m looking at you, Clyde. You’re truly evil.

Black Buck offers a great examination of how insidious racism is, and in this case, particularly within a professional setting. It’s staggering how obviously racist people like to pretend they’re not racist, or that racism isn’t what’s propelling their behavior. It’s ridiculous how white people can look at POC trying to lift up other POC and call it an anti-white attack. I’m white myself, but I’m disgusted by so many racist white people out there. We can all do so much better.

This book is satirical and a bit over-the-top, but these only help drive home its important messages. As enjoyable as Black Buck is, it’s also something we can learn from.

Final Thoughts

I thought I knew what I was getting into when I picked up Black Buck, but this book actually left me surprised, inspired, and a little emotional. It’s dynamic, fun, and thought-provoking, and an overall impressive debut novel. Even though he says his next book “won’t be anything like this one,” I look forward to reading more from Mateo Askaripour in the coming years.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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