Is ‘Black Buck’ the first racial satire that’s also self-help?
On the Shelf
By Mateo Askaripour
Houghton Mifflin: 400 pages, $26
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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.
The book’s 20-something narrator, Darren, graduated as valedictorian from one of New York’s top high schools, only to tamp down his ambitions. He’s been playing it safe in Brooklyn, contenting himself with his Ma, his girlfriend and a modest managerial job at Starbucks. Then he is seduced into the world of sales — hired to persuade corporations to enlist in emotional and spiritual support services from a shiny new startup called Sumwun.
Despite facing persistent racism as Sumwun’s lone Black employee — coworkers rename him Buck and claim he resembles Malcolm X and Dave Chappelle — Darren soon becomes a star. But in the process, he loses his way, alienating those closest to him. His misbehaviors recall a maxim Askaripour once wrote down after a traumatic experience in Italy: “The most dangerous thing a person of color can do is forget they’re a person of color — especially in unfamiliar places.”
Darren does eventually find a new path, training minorities to even the playing field for themselves and others — only to be targeted by misinformation from white supremacists depicting his crew as extremists and thugs.
Askaripour, 29, wields a sharp satirical blade to deliver social commentary. “A lot of the humor is like an inside joke for Black people,” he says, “and if I was writing with white people in mind, I probably wouldn’t have written it, because I’m talking s— in mixed company.”
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The more exaggerated details in the book — Darren sends a trainee to sell a (fictional) magazine called Blackface — have drawn comparisons in advance reviews to absurdist Black narratives like Paul Beatty’s novel “The Sellout” and Boots Riley’s film “Sorry to Bother You.”
This, says Askaripour, is a misreading. “I understand that for some readers I’m pushing the plausibility of the narrative to the edge,” he says, adding that while he likes Beatty and Riley, he didn’t set out to write satire. “No Black person would describe what Darren experiences as surprising or absurd.”
Askaripour’s sincerity comes through in conversation; he’ll respond to a question by saying, “I’ve got four thoughts on that.” He earnestly hopes the book provides practical help. The sales tips Darren intersperses throughout his story, which might in another book be mistaken for anti-capitalist parody, are meant to be genuine.
“I wanted to hold the reader’s attention while delivering a message,” he says. “But I also want the book to function as a sales manual to help Black and brown people gain a proficiency in sales, so if they sit down across from an interviewer for an entry level position, they’ll have an edge.”
Askaripour comes by it all honestly through lived experience. Growing up on Long Island, N.Y., with an Iranian father and Jamaican mother “emphasized my otherness,” he says, even within the Black community. Unlike Darren, Askaripour went to college (New York University) and deliberately sought a career in startup sales, with dreams of eventually starting his own company. Like Darren, he found success but lost himself.
Long days at the office and nights partying with colleagues took a physical and psychological toll. “These places command so much of you and your energy,” he says. “I was in so deep for so long. I was ignoring my closest friends, screening my mother’s calls, only seeing people I worked with.”
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Askaripour rose to director of sales development at a “microlearning” company called Grovo, but he was giving over all his waking hours, even though he didn’t care about the mission. He grew disillusioned with a culture built around overcoming “contrived adversity.”
“You’re not curing cancer, but you’re supposed to feel as though you are,” he says, “just because you’re hitting your sales goal.”
Askaripour quit his job in 2016 to become a writer, starting with essays. But two attempts at novels went nowhere. Floundering, he consulted for tech startups to pay the bills and went to Southeast Asia for five months, studying writing and trying to find himself on the page.
Ultimately, Stephen King’s “On Writing” and a trip to the Rhode Island Writers Colony helped him find his footing. He realized his book needed to address issues he had never resolved in his own life. Askaripour did toy with the kind of wild parodies other authors have done, initially conceiving of “an elite group of Black salespeople who blow up buildings and become domestic terrorists.” But he decided it was better to “make the book true to me and the people I want it to serve.”
The book is autobiographical more in feeling than in fact. “I’ve experienced crazy racist bull— but I also know that elitist feeling of being at a startup,” he says, “and what it’s like to feel drunk with power and how to use inspiration as a guise for manipulation.”
That still leaves the question of why Askaripour would aim to help others gain a foothold in a profession he disdains. It gives them a chance, he argues, to “start accruing some money, help their families and their communities, and maybe somewhat shrink the wealth gap.” Still, this is a cautionary tale. “They need to be cognizant of what they’re doing because it’s very easy to get high off all this.”
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Askaripour believes the book’s lessons extend beyond sales. Darren writes in a metafictional author’s note that everything in life is selling: Even Martin Luther King Jr. was a salesman for his vision of a more just America. Askaripour doesn’t always agree with his protagonist — “I wouldn’t say or even think some of the things he does” — but on this he fully concurs.
“I really do believe everything is sales,” he says. “This whole interview is me selling you on my book and that I know what I’m talking about. And then your article will be selling your perspective to the readers.”
He may have written, in other words, the first satire that doubles as self-help. “It’s about inspiration and motivation and being able to get through obstacles to help lead a better life,” he says. “I just hope people use these ideas in ways that are positive and for the benefit of others.”
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