A biting satire on race and capitalism in America
Black suede. By Mateo Askaripour. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 400 pages; $ 26. John Murray; £ 14.99
TSTREET IN SON name, Darren Vender is a salesperson. In the opening pages of “Black Buck,” Mateo Askaripour’s first novel both spirited and savage, Darren hands out Grasshopper Frappuccinos at a Starbucks in Manhattan. After four years, he won the black apron of a coffee master; but as a former Valedictorian in his class at a prestigious Bronx high school, he knows that a job as a marksman isn’t worth much. Then he sells a new drink to Rhett, a regular customer, and is invited to work in Rhett’s business. “Once you learn how to sell, really sell, anything is possible,” says Darren. But is it true?
Mr. Askaris’ satire of the tech industry – and the intersection of capitalism and American racial politics – will appeal to fans of Paul Beatty’s award-winning Booker novel “The Sellout” and “Get Out” by Jordan Peele. When Darren joins Sumwun – a startup offering online therapy to large companies who want to be seen as caring employers – he is immediately renamed Buck. “If he does his job, he’ll make us each a million dollars,” Rhett’s co-worker Clyde explains with a wink.
But Darren is the only black person on the team, and the nickname suggests a dehumanizing racial stereotype as well. Colleagues tell him that he looks like Sidney Poitier or Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. Mr. Askaripour’s white characters are terribly comfortable in their privilege. “I knew you sounded familiar,” Clyde said, “but I wasn’t sure that was how most black people look alike. Not in a racist way, of course.
Every day, Darren – who comes in to call and considers himself Buck – takes the subway from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. The novel may be too bluntly mapping the psychic distance between the narrator’s old and new life, but that’s the nature of raw satire like this. In their seriousness, the self-improvement aphorisms that salt the bold text help humanize Darren’s effort: “Reader: No matter how much it hurts, never let short-term frustration disrupt long-term gain.” term.” The outcome is surprisingly shocking.
It would be wishful thinking to find Mr. Askaripour’s worldview totally incredible. “I know. The turning points in this story are half absurd, half mind-boggling and a whole bunch of crazy,” Darren says. The other half is all too real.
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the Print Publishing under the title “The hard sell”