I finished reading Black Buck about three weeks ago, and have no idea whether I’ve really got it. That’s not a criticism of the book. It comes at you from so many different angles and at different levels as to unmoor you as surely as happens to lead character Darren when he leaves the cosy security of the barista life for a cult-like start-up. Darren will be the only black salesperson in a company that reeks with racism (and, let’s be honest, all kinds of bullying) on so many fronts we’re not sure where to start. Casual, unconscious, conscious, deliberate, strategic. Always denied hotly, or defended in that ‘all lives matter’ way we’re all familiar with. Mateo Askaripour has created a hall of mirrors: this is a book in which the narrator peppers the main narrative with nuggets of self-help tips on how to be a salesperson. Yet only now, having read an interview with Askaripour, do I realise that these are meant to be taken seriously. The rest of the narrative has sales culture – and systemic racism – in its sights.
No one tells the truth, especially not to themselves. Everyone’s compromised, other than Darren’s friends and family, who are abandoned in the first act and partly reconciled in the second, ‘the Duchess’ who is rich enough not to have to compromise (it’s called selling out for a reason) and ‘Frodo’, for whom this really is the dream.
Oh, yes, there are moments when Askaripour makes us delight in well-observed skewers of corporate hypocrisy and office life’s symbols and rituals, together with a healthy disgust of the more cynical corporate take on how to exploit and monetise mental health. But that’s not nearly all that this book is about; in fact it isn’t really what it’s about. Alongside the corporate lolz there’s that exploration of outright and overt racism and class antagonism. It’s visceral and violent. And at the same time, Askaripour’s asking us about ambition and whether that’s something that can be achieved while also being consistent with your community and your roots. There are bits that are ridiculously absurd, and bits that will or should make you angry and that slightly-knowing, uneasy-making tension between the reader and the narrator-as-salesperson means that you can never just relax. Even when Darren does relax, we are yelling at him to be on his guard, or to go and reconcile with his old world in Bed-Stuy. Even when he’s an appalling shell of a man, we want him to come back to righteousness, whatever that is. We’re as jittery as if we’ve had a double nitro cold brew. We want to be sold that it’s just going to be all right. If we could solve systemic injustice at the same time, all well and good, but… That balance between the personal and the systemic is not resolved, and I get the sense that this has annoyed some fellow bloggers: for me, it’s a realistic direction to take. This isn’t a Pepsi commercial and Darren isn’t Kendall Jenner. Askaripour paints in primary colours, but he doesn’t use gloss.
You’ll be amused and angered: a good combo. But as we career through Darren’s career at a hundred miles an hour, there’s a sense of so much going on that we readers may not be aware of it all. That’s good in a way, because it makes us really think about the material, but at a basic level I wonder just how much I’m missing. On page 29 there’s a slightly nerdy reference to the way in which Steve Jobs invited John Sculley to come and take control of Apple. When making my notes I realise that the two truly awful characters are Clyde and Bonnie. Bonnie and Clyde: oh no. There must be hundreds of side-gags and references that I just don’t pick up on and that makes me want to read this again, more slowly and carefully.
I don’t know whether this will turn out to be an important book, but I feel it should be. It certainly tells us more about white fragility than a dozen op-ed articles. I predict Askaripour will turn out to be an important writer and commentator. Black Buck is a strong debut, and if you like your satire fast, furious and biting, it should be on your list this summer.
Thanks to John Murray for the review copy.