Ambition, identity, and otherness: A review of Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour

A cup of black coffee next to a Book of the Month copy of Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour on top of a wooden table.

So disclaimer: this was my first FIVE STAR read of 2020. Now, I used to throw 5 stars around like they were candy. But the more I read, the more I realized I needed to reserve that rating for the far and few — the ones that touched my heart, made me think differently about a topic, or stuck with me for whatever reason. Black Buck is certainly one of those stories.

The first thing that caught my eye (beyond the colorful, striking cover) was Mateo Askaripour’s very personal dedication — “To all of those who have ever been made to feel less than / I see you.” I love to see who authors dedicate their stories, something so personal to them, to, and I found it very powerful that Askaripour aimed it at basically everyone. After all, who hasn’t been made to feel less than before? And after reading this witty, pointed, and sharp critique of race, ambition, and otherness in America’s workforce, I couldn’t help but think back to his dedication.

Quick synopsis: Darren, a young and unambitious Black man living in NYC, is suddenly swooped up from his job at Starbucks into a sales role at a hot, new startup after a chance encounter with the company’s enigmatic leader. There, he finds himself the token POC in an office that is very, very white. As the story progresses and Darren learns to master the art of sales, he remakes himself into the titular Buck and makes it his mission to help other BIPOC infiltrate the workforce by teaching them to be masterful salespeople.

While Askaripour may not have intended for his debut to be read as a satire, I found it to be one of the freshest, sharpest satires I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The story was laugh-out-loud funny as it tackled startup culture, racism in the workforce, the intensity of sales, and more. But it was also incredibly cringe-inducing, as I watched Darren face a variety of of microaggressions in the workplace, from being told he looks like basically every Black celebrity, and even more outright and stomach-churning acts of racism.

At times, I remember thinking, there’s no way stuff like this could actually happen — but then again, doesn’t it? As an BIPOC person, I could relate to the feelings of inadequacy or otherness that Darren felt, along with this intense desire to live up to and even succeed the expectations laid out in front of him, both his own and of those around him. While the story certainly felt over the top, the feelings those scenes inspired were real, whether that was relatability, discomfort, even fear or sadness. And that’s exactly what makes a good satire — using these extreme, almost cartoonish scenarios to evoke feelings in the readers that are real and tangible.

Overall, this story was a profound examination of how race plays a role in business and beyond, but I think what it did best was address otherness and create a sense of community and belonging, especially for BIPOC and perhaps other marginalized groups. While I’m no skilled salesman in a NYC high rise, I certainly understand many of Darren’s feelings of needing to fit in and prove himself worthy. And while everyone has arguably experienced feeling like a “less than,” I think any BIPOC can attest that that feeling is sometimes deeply ingrained in us as a result of the system. And while I think many BIPOC readers especially be able to relate to, laugh with, and ache alongside, I definitely think this is a story that anyone can read and gain a whole new perspective.

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