Rooting for Buck: Mateo Askaripour’s Adventure into Race, Capitalism, and Family in America
Jan 04 ● BY Chris Kubik
Before today’s satirization of multilevel marketing, WakeUpNow obscured their sale of energy drinks with heightened language related to improving the state of the planet as a whole, person by person. At the time, if you were to research this ridiculous company, you would have had to wade through numerous pages of mission statements, policy, and entrepreneurial plans before arriving at the reality that, yes, you would have to sell energy drinks and, later on down the road, sell others on the idea of selling energy drinks.
Fittingly, WakeUpNow morphed into a “movement,” self-dubbed “Wunlife,” and many of its broader principles mirror the image readers may think of when they learn about Mateo Askaripour’s “Sumwun,” the main company at the heart of Askaripour’s debut novel, Black Buck. Like WakeUpNow, Sumwun is opaque in a calculated way, causing Black Buck‘s main character, Darren Vender, to wonder what movement he may be contributing to as he’s hurled into a sales journey that ends up changing his life. A Starbucks manager, Darren ditches his job one day when Rhett, CEO and Founder of Sumwun, asks Darren to work for him. Darren’s relationship to the world changes as he gains insight into how Sumwun, tech, wealth, and whiteness define access to success. Black Buck triumphs in setting up this dichotomy: Darren, a Black man from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and his community—his mother, girlfriend, best friend, and neighbors committed to his upbringing—prioritize togetherness, heritage, and kindness; Rhett, a wealthy white man who has helmed numerous profitable startups, prioritizes loyalty, popularity, and flashiness. As Darren navigates Sumwun, he finds that he needs to sacrifice many of his community’s principles for Rhett’s. At best, he trades in family dinners for company parties; at worst, he experiences overt racism, which others mask under the guise of “breaking” him as a way of preparing him for the consistent rejection of salesmanship. In either scenario, Darren—now nicknamed “Buck” at Sumwun—finds that he doesn’t always disagree with Rhett’s way of life. As he cedes more of his community and principles in favor of money, power, and authority at Sumwun, he questions what roots his own community in the first place. His rejection of his former life in Bed-Stuy—humble, but full of love, supported by a girlfriend he’s known since childhood—starts a chain reaction in which, as his community pushes back against his rejection of it, he interprets their pushback as envy and malice, making him reject them more. This tension comes to a head when health issues in his family lead Buck to question how much his community really supports him, and, as a torn Black man finding his place in a world of capitalism, tech, quick money, and startups, he steps away from his home.
The novel departs from this more traditional approach to a bildungsroman (a young man finding his path in life and establishing his foundation of moral values) in its second half, turning more to how Buck rediscovers his own principles and what made his former way of life so special. More successful at this point, having landed a ludicrous mentorship with a leading businessman in NYC, Buck aims to help people of color establish careers as salespeople, starting with an old friend from his days of working at Starbucks. Buck, at first drawn to the idea of mentoring others as a way of recommending good hires for entry- level sales jobs, comes to find camaraderie in the ragtag group of prospects who call him “Sensei.” Here, the novel takes an interesting turn, incorporating the fabric of today’s reality to illustrate how race and class explicitly influence our conceptions of success and access to opportunity. As other—mostly white—salespeople begin to notice Buck’s efforts to help more people of color, they flag him as a kind of reverse racist who wants people of color to take over the entry-level sales world. Buck, addressing this idea that he’s a “racist” as a Black man, gives readers a sound bite that may prove more useful than the normal attempts to define structural racism to the willfully ignorant: to those who always felt like they weren’t worthy of more, he wants to restore a sense of hope, and that disproportionately means people of color in his case. The novel balances many concepts in a deft way: while Askaripour remains committed to the heightened reality of Buck’s ultrafast rags-to-riches story taking place in the span of one year, he also confronts real questions that continue to define our public discourse today, especially in the United States.
In many ways, Buck’s story adheres closely to superhero origin stories in how it calls to mind righteousness and justice in the face of evil. Here, though, Buck’s superhero qualities—he can sell anyone on anything, he can get any job, he can spawn money endlessly as he profits off of the organization he forms to mentor more people of color—shine against today’s backdrop of inequality as more Americans accept the reality of people of color having more difficulty breaking into new industries, overcoming established bias, and living life peacefully. Buck overcomes racism in his training process, literally being “whitewashed” as he’s pranked and covered with white paint; Buck loses a best friend because he pursues a “white” job and later earns back the trust of this friend; Buck single-handedly saves Sumwun from imminent collapse through his virtuosic ability to sell. And, in the same way that superhero stories appeal to our sense of justice, Buck, simply through enduring, appeals to a sense of justice in a world that is rigidly racist.
Why is it so difficult for Buck to simply endure while his white counterparts thrive? Toward the end of the novel, Buck confronts a racist media figure who asks the same question as a manner of putting down people of color: people like Buck struggle to thrive perhaps out of a commitment to the same community that Buck needed to reject in order to get ahead. Buck never attended college because he wanted to stay home and help his mother, who works at a factory. Ironically, though many of the white people in Buck’s path to becoming an elite salesman understand that Buck has had to sacrifice college for family, they hold it as a point against him as opposed to integrating it into their view of him as a prodigy who has worked twice as hard to get half as far.
Black Buck is a novel that is immensely readable while critically engaging with questions that continue to define society’s relationship with race. As it inhabits a literary space that increasingly analyzes the tech world, in line with other current literary hits such as New Waves by Kevin Nguyen or Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte, it consistently underpins its story with a close point-of-view that exposes the implicit biases of said world. Askaripour excels in his debut, balancing identity, an adrenaline-pumped plot, and societal critique in a way that can, at times, feel like a high wire act. Not one element feels disproportionate to another, and, throughout the entire piece, Askaripour maintains an energetic voice that, despite detailing a cruel and prejudiced world, promises hope for those like Buck—willing to try, willing to fight, and willing to stand up for what is right.