Black Buck

Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour is like nothing I’ve read. It’s unique: part fictional memoir, part sales training manual, part self-help guide.

How can I explain without giving it all away?

Darren “Buck” Vender, our 22 year old hero, was valedictorian of his HS class but never made it to college. He’s comfortable and content, living on the third story of his mom’s brownstone in Bed-Stuy. He manages a Starbucks, satisfied with his black apron (one step above the green one worn by novices) and fond of his misfit crew.

Then, for some unknown inner reason he engages Rhett, the successful enigma of a businessman who comes in three times a day. Darren challenges him to try a new drink, sells him hard and in the end Rhett gives in. He’s impressed and invites Darren to come see him at his office upstairs at his start-up, Sumwun. Rhett sees something in Darren and he takes a chance on developing a protégé.

Is this Darren’s opportunity? Does he really even want one? He’s got his mom, his girl Soraya, money enough for what he needs and the third floor of a brownstone. Life is good. But everyone around him seems to know he’s destined for more.

This novel is darkly funny with sarcasm and satire reminiscent of books like American Psycho. Most of the grim humor is a response to systemic racism. Which makes sense – when you read Black Buck you’re slipping into the mind and life of a young Black man in NYC. Dark humor is how he gets by, how he defends himself.

The interview and training at Sumwun are outrageous: the people are hostile, violent, harsh, abusive and racist. All the employees are white and Darren is literally the first person of color at the company. And he’s blatantly and openly resented. The racism he endures includes verbal and physical abuse. While it’s on the edge of belief, remember that truth is stranger than fiction.

Pretty soon Darren has a new job in sales and a new nickname, Buck (as in Starbucks Buck). Sumwun sells therapy packages to companies, not with officially licensed doctors, but instead “assistants” who are regular folks from all over the world. They get matched up with people of similar backgrounds who want to work on their mental health and they talk it out.

He falls right in, enjoying himself and starting to believe the things they’re saying about him. There are promises not to change, but power and money and fame don’t mix with promises. Buck changes. Burns bridges. Indulges in things he’s never touched before. Where does he belong?

The pace of Black Buck is quick and time passes in chunks. But some parts meander, in a good way. It’s filled with moments of understanding, empathy, and kindness. Buck’s inner thoughts and dialog make this novel sing.

Sumwun goes through some trying times, and Darren is used (again). But then he flips it. He starts training Brian, his old Starbucks friend, and soon expands to lead an underground network of sales trainers and trainees. Their goal is to equip people of color and marginalized people with sales basics and pathways to careers never before possible.

I’m glossing over so much. Black Buck is a technicolor novel, bright, alive, heart pumping. It’s also profane, adult and not for easily offended. First it was funny then it got sad and all throughout it was motivating. Good guys can get caught up sometimes. Askaripour created a character so real, at times I wanted to throttle Buck, I felt disappointed in him. But most of all I felt invested, in him, his people and his path. Black Buck is an instant classic and I can’t wait to see what Askaripour does next.   

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