Black Buck

The tech industry has a diversity problem. “Black Buck,” Mateo Askaripour’s debut novel of a Starbucks barista turned sensational deal maker, offers a fictional antidote. Served piping hot, Black, no milk and light on the sugar—which, trust me, makes all the sense in the world when you read it—the book includes characters and a depiction of hustle not often seen in American literature.

We find ourselves in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, a stone’s throw away from the Marcy Houses and the Key Foods supermarket, hallowed grounds of former drug dealer, rapper and now billionaire Jay Z. Here, we meet the narrator Darren Vender, a different kind of peddler (with an apropos surname to boot). He’s 22 years old, part-Latinx, part-Black and a valedictorian of Bronx Science, one of New York’s renowned high schools. Darren’s ambition seems to have only risen as high as the froth he makes in the coffee cups of his mostly white customers at a Starbucks on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, where he’s considered a kind of prodigy. He doesn’t even drink the stuff.

We also encounter his doting mother whose daily aphorisms are a harbinger of what is to come, as she tries to motivate him to realize his potential. Other notable characters include: Mr. Rawlings, a tenant and grandfather-figure who gardens and occupies the bottom floor of their three-story brownstone; Wally Cat, a sexagenarian man of means and mystery who keeps his eyes both on the neighborhood and Darren’s mother’s backside; Jason, his childhood best friend who has taken a line from Jay Z’s playbook in the school of hard knocks; Mr. Aziz, a Yemeni bodega owner and the father of Soraya, a figure often described by her cinnamon and cocoa butter scent who captivates Darren’s senses and discharges his morning wood.

The first few chapters feel like Groundhog Day on his journey into work: chatting with his mother at the kitchen table, hailing Wally Cat, Mr. Aziz and Soraya, and fist bumping Jason near the subway station. This routine changes, however, when by some unknown compunction Darren challenges a pensive Rhett often flanked by people, signaling an air of import. Rather than serving Rhett the standard Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew, Darren takes a chance and hands him a Nitro Sweet Cream with Cold Brew instead and sells him on its virtues. As Askaripour describes in the book, for many, coffee is like crack. Few people will be willing to forego the tried and true for something untested that may not deliver the same kind of fix. But Darren, through his salesmanship, sways Rhett and in the process secures an interview for an unknown job with an unknown company for which Rhett is its founder and CEO.

The setup for the impending dramatic events that occur are pitched perfectly, especially in these modern times when representation has graduated from more than a buzzword. But what ensues devolves into a parody of Silicon Alley work culture or a hyper reality that perhaps would have achieved greater strength with more subtlety. With no college education, Darren lands a job as an SDR (sales development representative) at Sumwun, a tech company that matches a global clientele suffering from the psychological demands of 21st-century living with therapists called “assistants” that “give people hope: the hope that tomorrow will be a brighter day…that someone understands them…and…to continue living with purpose.” It’s an enterprise sale and a product as mysterious as the value proposition of many of today’s tech startups where virtually anything is monetizable—the stuff of which NFTs are made.

The description of the atmosphere at Sumwun that “crackled like static,” with near constantly blaring music, having to dodge blue stress balls being tossed around, employees on scooters in between meetings and amid barking dogs look nothing like the tech companies I have worked for. Sumwun is the kind of place where new employees are hazed by being doused with paint, where the pressure and tension in the air makes the film, “Boiler Room,” seem like Shangri-la. It’s also a hostile work culture for minorities, where microaggression is abandoned for less subtle forms of racism and classism that Darren is loath to share with his coworkers in order to fit in that he has no college degree, lives in Bed-Stuy and served them Starbucks coffee 36 stories beneath on the ground floor. Darren is often greeted by coworkers asking him if anyone had ever told him that he looks like Morgan Freeman…Martin Luther King, Junior…Malcolm X…and Sydney Poitier to play on the stereotype that Black people are indistinguishable to white Americans. It presents a reality of ostracism and code switching that some underrepresented groups face when in predominantly white, upper middle-class workspaces. But the ante is way up there, and while some of this trope-mongering is true, it is layered thick.

As a classic bildungsroman, where the book excels is Darren’s transformation. He grows to alienate his mother and his girlfriend Soraya, puts down his best friend Jason, and fails to meet commitments that fracture these relationships. He also begins to drink coffee, and even alcohol, which he swore previously never to do. Finally in a position to make something of himself, he embraces a new identity, Buck, given to him by his racist boss Clyde. How he ignores the daily crucible of racism makes little sense, but he becomes a bit of a rockstar. It seems the money and the opportunity to make good on his mother’s desires for him are far more superseding than the torment. He also becomes a face for the company known in New York’s local media scene, because of controversy that thrust him in the spotlight.

Where Askaripour does a great job are the subtleties he threads in the interpersonal relationships between the characters. The relationship Darren has with his mom is tender, even when strained. He has a unique devotion to Soraya that doesn’t appear at all to be fictional. And as Rhett’s protégé, he and Rhett form an uncommon bond as you see them grow close, with what first appears as homoerotic intimacy where Darren takes note of Rhett grabbing his shoulder when they first meet, Rhett later embracing Darren in a way no man had ever done, and even Rhett kissing Darren on the forehead after Darren saves the day even later on in the book. But, dear reader, there is no payoff!

It is the relationship with Clyde that catapults the story arc in a turn you will not expect, as he and Buck become archnemeses. I will not ruin the plot other than to say that Darren turned Buck, now Black Buck, goes on a campaign to diversify corporate America by imparting what he has learned to a global, militant, underground following of racial minorities. And it works! (The term Black Buck has roots as a racial slur of African American men who disavowed white rule and authority). He mends the relationships with Soraya and Jason whom he also recruits. Buck even gets a promotion, a driver and a swanky apartment for a lifestyle far removed from his more humble beginnings in Brooklyn.

This comeuppance is all pegged on his success in selling. The trouble is Buck’s excellence and influence is outsized next to the salesmanship he displays in the book. Although he saves the day when Sumwun is imperiled, it is not by the result of hard work and cunning, but bravura and a stroke of luck. The sales challenges he later creates for his acolytes are intended to impart mastery, as if the thing can be taught by performing a commercial scavenger hunt, and at which they often do not succeed. For a book that has raised the stakes and presented Buck as a wunderkind (I’ll give him sharp-witted), his salesmanship doesn’t approximate genius. Landing a $500,000 contract in some sales circles is entry-level—and Buck was entry level.

Given the hype and hyperreal circumstances created in the book and the dramatic tension that carries the narrative, there’s a lot of deus ex machina at work that would be avoided by a more seasoned author. Recognizing the impossibility of the drama, Buck himself vis-à-vis Askariapour even says, “I know. The turns in this story are half absurd, half jaw-dropping, and a whole heaping of crazy. But I assure you, every single line is true.” It’s unclear if this admonishment is a scapegoat. Is the reader being sold by the author to suspend disbelief in this moment as well? “Black Buck” reads more like it was written to be a movie where the farce that a 22-year-old, high school valedictorian and Starbucks barista could rise to become an acclaimed and sought-after salesman in Silicon Alley, known publicly on television and earned significant wealth within a 12-month period, could be true. But then, Silicon Valley and Alley have made millionaires and billionaires out of college dropouts, whose sole task was to convince just one critical person to cement their stature whether by sheer talent or chicanery (I think of Billy McFarland of Fyre Festival fame here).

Although I enjoyed getting to know Buck and meeting the bevy of characters you don’t see often on the New York Times Best Seller List, what I am most disappointed by was the ending. I applaud the sleight of hand that occurs, but it doesn’t feel at all germane to Buck. It needed a bit more justification for why he would take the risk he did, especially as he had even anticipated the eventual outcome. For all his prowess in business, he should never have so easily been sold down the river. Still, I will watch the film adaptation when it hits the small or big screen, as the book’s TV/film rights have already been auctioned off.

Where “The Wolf of Wall Street” made excess and cronyism entertaining by those at the top, “Black Buck” has an equally twisted tale of subverting the system by any means necessary by those institutionally at the bottom. This is a hero turned antihero tale by an unlikely protagonist at a time when so many people are looking for a savior or simply a shot.

About this book

  • ISBN:9780358380887
  • Price:$14.99
  • Page Count:400

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