June 2021 – Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
Signals are important. We all use signals to help us interpret whatever is facing us. If we can recognize a signal, we can begin to develop understanding of a subject, an object, a person, a piece of writing. In many ways, Zion’s reading selection for June, Black Buck, was about signals and how we recognize, send and use them. Our readers had difficulty interpreting the signals in the opening pages of the book. Was it a memoir? It sure read like one. But no, it was not. Was it non-fiction? No, it was a novel. However, the author Mateo Askaripour, spoke directly to the readers in bold-printed asides to point out important signals he didn’t want us to miss. A unique way to fashion a story with stereotyped characters that often read like Marketing 101, some readers felt this was a genre buster. Others compared it to a morality play and waited for the story to wend its way to the point.
And what a story it was! A gritty tale, at times humorous, authentically rendered in the vernacular of the inner city in which it took place, it is an uncomfortable portrayal of Darren, a young black man trying to be upwardly mobile in a white world as one reader put it. Specifically, the world of marketing where you are constantly sending signals, interpreting the signals that come back to you, and modifying your own signals in order to sell, sell, sell your product and yourself. Happily working at a Starbucks, Darren has learned how to read his customers in order to make them feel comfortable and welcome, thereby selling more coffee. With a quick intelligence, he could obviously do better than this. A lucky (or unlucky?) meeting with the Bible-quoting CEO of the hottest startup in New York City gives Darren a chance at joining the marketing team of Sumwun, a company that connects people to world-wide “therapists” who will help them interpret their problems and guide them to becoming their best selves so they can put those selves forward and send appropriate signals to advance their careers. It was amazing how long it took our readers to figure out what the company did because the signals in the book were ambiguous at best concerning the product. The emphasis was on sales. A very accurate satire of tech start-ups right down to the hell week for the newly hired, the story has Darren enduring racial taunts and harassment that might have made anyone else walk out the door. Instead, Darren transforms himself into super seller Buck (short for Starbucks). He endures the constant pressure of sales quotas and racial bias. He is caught up in the glory of success and money and ignores the signals and outright statements from family and friends that he is selling his soul to become part of a different, and not necessarily better, culture. In what one reader referred to as Buck’s original sin, he throws Mr. Rawlings, a long-time tenant of Buck’s mother, out on the street. He alienates his girlfriend. As his former relationships crumble and break, Buck is riding the wave and losing himself in drugs and drink.
Our readers wished they could pinpoint the Road to Damascus event that finally led Buck to realize the importance of remaining true to yourself. However, we could not. Suddenly, in what seemed a weak plot twist, he realizes his chauffeur is an actual person and that his former co-workers at Starbucks just need to know how to send the right signals to be competitive in marketing. Buck forms a rather contrived group called the Happy Campers and proceeds to train other people of color to send the correct signals and market themselves and their products to compete with Sumwun, which is caught up in a crisis that might shut down the start-up completely. And he does this while denying to Sumwun’s CEO that he is involved in any way with the new group. The Happy Campers’ revolt against his leadership is over-the-top, but he has so many balls in the air that the crash when they come tumbling down is spectacular. During the rush to the ending, Buck manages somehow to reinvent himself again as a savior, complete with betrayal by a close friend and enduring punishment for another friend, in a finale that contained a final plot twist only a couple readers saw coming and that reminded one reader of the big reveal at the end of the old Scooby-Doo shows.
While this novel may be one of the many books that were outgrowths of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is certainly one of the most readable in the view of many of our readers. Whether we were grimacing at language, appreciating the author’s play on words, laughing at some of the humor, appalled at Buck’s actions, or deploring the overt and covert racism depicted in the novel, it kept us engaged. None of the major characters came off very well, and the mixed signals the author sent made it hard to put this book into any one box. Which may have been his intention in the first place. Mr. Askaripour admittedly likes his writing to give readers the opportunity to gain insight into themselves or their culture and to improve themselves. Certainly, Black Buck let Zion’s readers vicariously experience situations they might never see and recognize signals they may have previously ignored or misinterpreted. A modern morality tale, it points out the tension between successfully selling ourselves in job interviews and as self-employed business people and the challenge of, with a tip of the hat to old Will Shakespeare’s admonition from Polonius, remaining true to ourselves so we cannot be false to anyone else. Good to know that mixed signals have been around a long time!
Zion’s readers also had a mixed reaction to the book, with four readers giving it 1 thumb up, six readers feeling neutral, one reader giving it a knuckle down, and three readers giving it 1 thumb down. After an enjoyable picnic, we now have our traditional summer break and plan to meet again in September to discuss The Pecan Man by Cassie Dandridge Selleck. Enjoy your summer reading!