In a tradition stretching back to Ben Franklin, Askaripour positions this Bildungsroman as a self-help manual, but the book is cast with a distinct hue. Darren, the narrator, tells us: “I am a black man on a mission. No, I am a black salesman on a mission.” Writing from his penthouse overlooking Central Park, Darren wants only to give other Black people the tools they need to fulfill their dreams. The introduction is as American as Dale Carnegie, and the story that follows is periodically interrupted by habits of highly effective people who would make Stephen Covey proud:
Reader: Watch closely and take notes. Sales isn’t about talent, it’s about overcoming obstacles, beginning with yourself.
Depending on the light, the magical sheen of Askaripour’s prose can make those bits of homespun advice look wholly sincere or wickedly parodic. “Every day is deals day” for Darren, an ambitious Black man always working in two registers — playing along and the long game.
But when the story begins, Darren is a very different person than the Black Tony Robbins who introduces this story. He’s just a happy 22-year-old dude living with his mom in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Despite graduating as valedictorian of his class at Bronx School of Science, he never went to college and has been working the last four years at a Park Avenue Starbucks. “Now I’m not trying to brag,” he tells us, “but I was what you’d call a Starbucks prodigy.”
Alas, that tall distinction doesn’t hold much water with his mom or his girlfriend, who gently prod Darren to think bigger. Perhaps their advice is what motivates him on one otherwise ordinary day to confront a high-powered businessman who always orders a Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew.
“I don’t think you want that today,” Darren says.
That’s one small step for barista, one giant leap for conquista. His journey toward worldwide commercial fame has begun! The businessman is so impressed by Darren’s coffee salesmanship that he hires him away from Starbucks for the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to be a sales associate at Sumwun, the hot new therapy service that’s taking over the Internet.
Askaripour has a sharp eye for the comic absurdity of online start-ups. Sumwun employees — “Sumwunners”! — zip around their supercool office on scooters, dodging colleagues’ dogs and bopping to blaring music. “The burning passion, the unrestrained madness, the electricity. Can you feel it?” Darren’s boss asks. It’s a gleaming empire of fascist enthusiasm and panicked optimism goosed by the gleeful chanting of New Age aphorisms and impossible sales goals. “Always. Be. Closing!” the CEO shouts like some Silicon Valley version of Alec Baldwin.
But what makes “Black Buck” rise above other corporate satires is Askaripour’s dexterous treatment of race in the modern workplace. As the only Black man in the office, Darren finds himself among colleagues determined to prove how post-racial they are. In a gag that runs through the novel, they’re constantly asking him, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Malcolm X?” “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Martin Luther King?” “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Sidney Poitier?”
His manager is the worst. “I knew you looked familiar,” he says, “but I wasn’t sure if it was in the way most black people look alike. Not in a racist way, of course.”
That “of course” — that presumption of White innocence — is invoked to excuse an ever-expanding host of racist humiliations that begin with changing his name to “Buck.”
“You don’t mind, do you, Buck?”
Well, does he? How about being doused with white paint? Is that okay?
On the other hand, Darren’s salary instantly jumps from $19,000 to $65,000. Surely, that’s enough to justify doing a little spontaneous rapping when the boss requests it. Right?
Reader: If you are a black man, the key to any white person’s heart is the ability to shuck, jive, or freestyle. But use it wisely and sparingly. Otherwise you’re liable to turn into Steve Harvey.
Askaripour sweeps us along with Buck’s dazzling career, but it’s impossible to ignore the job’s horrible cost. Yes, he may have lost touch with his family and old friends, but look how effective he is on TV! As a Black man willing to talk about “diversity” while politely avoiding the word “race,” he’s a corporate darling. And the national media, acting out its nuance-free obsession with saviors and villains, plays right along. “A large part of me knew that none of this was right,” Darren tells us, “but I wasn’t doing this for myself, I was doing it for . . . everyone else who believed in me. I just had to man up and take it.”
This is satire richly fertilized with Trumpist anxiety. Darren — Buck — confronts fragility so finely attuned that even to suggest the existence of racism incites a White backlash of racist attacks cloaked in sententious outrage. It’s a brilliant sendup of the way some privileged people respond to the gentlest, most practical efforts to combat discrimination.
But don’t imagine you’ve got Askaripour all figured out. The syncopated tone of “Black Buck” keeps the story constantly shifting. In these pages, even cringe-inducing moments can suddenly slip into wise counsel or heartfelt confession. No matter how lacerating this vision of systemic racism is, Darren seems buoyed by a generous spirit, a well of joy that feels downright miraculous.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Mateo Askaripour
HMH. 381 pp. $26