(Photo: Andrew "Fifthgod" Askaripour)
Debut author Mateo Askaripour wants you to know he sees you. In fact, the dedication to his forthcoming novel, Black Buck, reads, “To all of those who have ever been made to feel less than/ I see you”. The latter half of 2020 was spent exploring what visibility means for Black people in particular with a series of racially based reckonings that swept through corporate America revealing the insidious ways that systemic oppression continuously denies people of color opportunities. Movements like Pull Up For Change and The 15% Pledge were founded as pathways to more equitable workplaces and avenues to transparency around recruitment and hiring practices. In industries like entertainment and fashion, “diversity” is a hot button topic and actually quite easy to manipulate even when the intentions are not as virtuous as things would appear but in the larger corporate world, in less sexy industries, racism rules in a way that is protected by the nature of these vocations being more hidden from public scrutiny.
And yet, diversity mandates are almost necessary to force white creatives to imagine worlds where diversity is a natural occurance as opposed to a carefully measured after-thought. Storytelling that includes other perspectives comes quite instinctively to those who have actually always been marginalized. In Black Buck, the narrator and protagonist is Darren Vender, a 21 year old manager of a Starbucks in Midtown Manhattan. Darren Vender’s future is in a holding pattern. He lives at home with his mother, albeit in a BedStuy brownstone that they own outright, but he graduated valedictorian of Bronx Science High School, a detail that should signal to us that he is destined for greatness. But Darren Vender is quite happy with his life as it is. He makes enough money. He likes his team of baristas. He’s great at his job. He is content with the size and the scope of his world even if his mother and girlfriend see his potential for more. One day, a chance encounter with a regular customer straps Darren onto a rocket ship with one mode: hyperdrive. His destiny and reformed identity converge for him to become Buck, a ruthless wheelin’ dealin’ partyin’ well, Stallion, and the chaos and depravity that can often accompany making a lot of money changes the entire trajectory of his life. I won’t ruin this book for you by revealing any spoilers but some tragic things happen, and there’s a redemption arc and a twisted ending that you might not see coming.
You’ll probably be hearing a lot about this book. It’s already been cosigned by Insecure star, Jay Ellis, who said, “I fell in love with this book and Buck from the first page. Mateo has not only authentically captured the feeling of being seen as ‘other,’ but he’s also managed to delicately show the way in which so many people protect themselves by creating an alter ego out of self-preservation. Buck’s journey is filled with heartache, laughter, fear, success, and karma.” Best-selling author Colson Whitehead echoed Ellis’ statements by saying, “Askaripour closes the deal on the first page of this mesmerizing novel, executing a high-wire act full of verve and dark, comic energy.”
I connect with Mateo in a way that is all too familiar to everyone this year, a zoom call, which I take from my bed and he takes from in front of his curated bookshelf in his apartment in Brooklyn. He is reflective and easygoing, wearing a baseball hat that features a logo of the Black power fist holding the telephone, the almost perfect answer to a casting call for a “young, Black author” that is to say, handsome, even-tempered and pensive. Like Darren aka Buck, Mateo was plucked from corporate obscurity and elevated from his lowly position as an intern by a senior staffer and promoted to lead a sales team at the ripe age of 24. Askaripour tells me, “It was a whirlwind. I was turning into a very ruthless and cutthroat person like Buck. In some ways I was separating myself from my family in many ways. There were stretches where I wouldn't see my family for months at a time.” Naturally, many people wonder if this work of fiction is somewhat autobiographical, a question that Askaripour is still wrestling with somewhat, but the short answer is no, though there are certain uncanny similarities to his own life that warrant comparison. He says, “Because part of this is auto fiction and when I try to quantify it, I mean, it ranges like 20 to 30%, but there are stark differences between Darren and I.”
Again, without any spoilers, since I think that is maybe the meanest things that writers can do when trying to convince anyone to invest time and energy into supporting a creative project, one of the things that made me most curious is Buck’s hero’s journey, which has many twists and turns but most memorably a dissent into corruption, skirting the edges of substance abuse and a curious path to moral and physical rehabilitation that hinges on his willingness to uplift otherwise neglected people of color.
I asked Askaripour if he assumes that it is the responsibility of successful Black people to do this kind of community service, which is not really a simple on to answer. We get into kind of a tangent about sports, one of the most visible industries where Black faces and bodies dominate what it means to be “successful”. He says, “And that just reminds me of the whole Laura Ingram thing ‘shut up and dribble’ when she said to LeBron, right? Meanwhile, LeBron is on the forefront of activism as are so many other people, Serena Williams, Colin Kaepernick, Naomi Osaka, all of these people, Muhammad Ali. He's one of my biggest idols. I have a poster of him right above my writing station because he was someone who attained an insane amount of success, but he spoke out against injustices. So to answer your question, clearly, I'm not going to be the person to say that just because someone is successful, that they have a responsibility to help others. I don't know these people. I don't know what it took for somebody to be successful. I don't know what their mental, emotional and even physical states are or is. Um, but I know that the way that I live my life and the people who I respect most are those who work extremely hard, constantly innovate. And then, hold the door open for others and try to get them in as well within their own capacity.”
In Buck’s case, his activism serves as a sort of offset to his moral misgivings, like a penance for sins. “For Buck, did he go too far? Hell yeah. He went too far because he did things that you can never take back. Think about it. Even if you do work as hard as possible to redeem yourself, there are always going to be consequences in life. It’s not always a constant calculation of cost benefit, but sometimes it is. And I am fortunate to have come to a place where I'm a lot more self-aware I have my priorities and better in better order,” he says. For Askaripour, fame and financial success cannot come at the expense of his family, good news for someone on the brink of a best-selling novel but with age and experience, he’s gotten more clarity. In his former life, as the leader of his own sales squad, he was in danger of potentially losing himself. “Back then I wouldn't have called it the sunken place because I didn’t know about it, but it was like OJ syndrome. Like I'm not Black, I’m OJ. And there was no point where I was rejecting Blackness or anything like that. You know what I'm saying? I have four brothers and some of my brothers would always remind me, like, bro, ‘I don't know who you think you are, but these people aren't really your people.’”
Family can be a good reality check, if you have that kind of barometer in your life to check you if you’re slipping but with that in mind, Askaripour understands that one experience is not the universal experience. He adds, “I can't speak for all Black people. I can't speak for all Black or brown people. But oftentimes when you face adversity, you know, you're just tired. And like, when you make it, you just want to take care of your family. And even that is a lot, or just take care of yourself, right? Like we're all not going to be Malcolm X and Martin Luther King or any of these other people, right? Just because we're successful.” On the verge of mega success himself, now is kind of as good a time as any to establish boundaries for what he’ll allow and what he won’t, a process that wasn’t as smooth for him when he was living his own version of Darren Vender’s life. Of course it’s not easy for a reason, something that the reader will see as Buck’s appetite for prosperity begins to outweigh his capacity for empathy.
It is not really that impossible to imagine a world where a man loses his way along his quest for dominance, power and affluence and that’s one of the ways that Black Buck effectively skirts the label of satire. Askaripour says, “Let's imagine a world where Buck got into Sumwun and he was working hard to retain his sense of individuality and it wouldn't have worked out at Sumwun, a place like Sumwun, as I'm sure you are very familiar with, is created to, or thrive off of stripping people of their individuality. Not all of it. They'll keep the good that can help further the interests of the organization, but anything that makes you stick out like a sore thumb, they're going to try and hammer it down because assimilation and group think and mob mentality are all dressed up as community or culture. Cult and culture, very similar for a reason.”
Most companies, especially new age-y tech ones, (looking at you Amazon, Facebook and Google) erode the barriers between home and work by providing meals, laundry and childcare, all with the singular goal of essentially ensuring that you never leave work. As the pandemic makes office culture increasingly obsolete though, these perks are less potent as the invisible ties that keep us understanding our place in the workforce. The job as identity, as a pure expression of self, self-worth and intrinsic value is the twisted real life configuration of the twenty first century abstraction, the “dream career.” Black Buck demonstrates the ways in which this façade becomes a danger to eroding the freeloading self, the one who doesn’t contribute to production, only consumption. “I wrote this book that people are starting to talk about, but the reality of the situation doesn't always match where people think it is. And then I have all this stuff going on, like a BET interview and all this stuff. But bro, you actually don't understand what it feels like when I'm alone and how tough it actually is. Cause then people are like, what do you have to complain about? And I’m making money from your art, which is sort of rare, you know what I'm saying? And that it's like a real double-edged sword and it's very hard to articulate that to people, especially strangers,” Askaripour concludes.
Convincing anyone that fame, money and power are not all they’re cracked up to be is a fool’s errand, but at the very least, Buck’s comeuppance will make you think twice about the price of success. It’s not a total tragedy, depending on your overall outlook, and you might be able to surmise that the ending to Buck’s story is either not that bad or it’s actually a catastrophe. Whichever camp you end up falling into, understand that Buck’s journey is one you should invest in for 2021 without question.
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