"Black Buck," a debut novel by Mateo Askaripour, is about Darren "Buck" Vender, an enterprising manager at a Starbucks in Manhattan who impresses the leader of a startup in the same building and finds himself leaving the ground level to accept a spectacular job opportunity on the top floor of a skyscraper. That job, at a company called Sumwun, gives Buck access to largesse and its familiar trappings and begins, for the protagonist and the reader, a series of absurd adventures.
The phrase "Black Buck" means at least five things. Buck is the protagonist's nickname. It was assigned to him because he is Black and used to work at Starbucks. Black Buck can also be a reference to Black money and "each one teach one" practices and the knowledge-sharing that allows Black people to survive, and, these days, to earn a living wage.
It's also a reference to a racial slur that rose to prominence after Reconstruction when Black buck or Black bull referred to Black men who defied white authority and were believed to express that defiance through violence and sexual skill. Back then, the epithet was a creation of the white world's imagination, a naked expression of white fear.
The word Buck, on its own, has modern meanings, too — to fighting, to partying, and, when used with "young" as in "young buck" — to a young Black man.
So the title is doing a lot of work. It prepares readers for a book where wordplay, layers of meaning and historical references, where explorations of our racial past and racial present, might amplify important discussions on reconciliation and equity that have risen again to national prominence.
In the marketing materials, "Black Buck" draws comparisons to the 2018 film, "Sorry to Bother You," where fantastic occurrences exist in service to larger conversations on race, class and art. Like the protagonist in "Sorry to Bother You," Buck is in his early 20s, and his decisions are often informed by youth and trauma — many readers will grant him courtesies as he makes a seemingly unending series of confounding choices.
"Black Buck" is plot-centric and written in the first person. The lack of an omniscient narrator leaves readers inside Buck's mind, hoping for exposition or insights to motivations that never arrive.
Plenty of things are working here. The book is funny and more than a few of the observations are keen. But its consideration of race and class and capitalism are facile and hyperbolic. I spent a lot of time wondering if the ridiculous occurrences are a perfect response to America right now or if Askaripour erred in reducing characters to caricatures — if a more nuanced conversation on the subtler manifestations of racism wouldn't be more useful.
For me, the better comparison is to HBO's "Lovecraft Country," a promising idea that ended up being a spectacular mess. The closing chapters of "Black Buck" work hard to smooth out a bumpy ride. Some readers will leave the journey feeling satisfied.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and essayist in St. Paul. His debut collection, "Worldly Things," will be published in June by Milkweed Editions.
By: Mateo Askaripour.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 400 pages, $26.