Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I struggled with my feelings about this book from the very beginning, and while I hoped that these feelings would resolve themselves by the end, they did not. One of my biggest struggles was trying to reconcile what I was reading with its categorization as satire. While there were certainly some cute and clever satirical elements, this text fell short of being a cohesive satire for me. Was there comedy? Yes, there were definitely parts that I laughed it. Were there outlandish moments? Certainly. Did I feel like the story's exaggerations produced some profound cultural or structural critique? Not particularly. Especially since some of the most "outlandish" parts felt too realistic while some of the more comedic parts fell flat.
I'd categorize this book as a dark comedy with satirical elements, because reading this novel with the constraints of satire in mind caused me to have expectations that weren't fulfilled and which might've actually caused me to enjoy the book less than I would've otherwise. I was expecting the novel to push the envelope in ways that were more meaningful. I also had moments where I struggled to parse out what precisely was being satirized, as any overarching sociocultural critique that I could glean from the novel was contradicted in some way or another by other plot points that would reinforce the very things that I thought were being critiqued. I had too many moments where I was thinking "okay... but what's the point?" when maybe I should've just been accepting what the author was presenting at face value.
Part of what contributed to my frustration might've been the fact that the story is narrated by its protagonist, Darren "Buck" Vender. He is unabashedly narcissistic and fancies himself as some sort of savior, attempting to justify the compromising of his integrity and the alienation of his loved ones by saying he's doing it for Black folk. This narcissism and self-delusion extends itself to how he views and relates to the other characters, all of whom felt more like one-dimensional caricatures than actual people. As a reader, this prevented me from connecting to any of the characters in any meaningful way, which is a shame because I definitely was not feeling Buck.
I think we're supposed to believe that Buck's cushy new Manhattan sales job is what "changed" him into this terrible person, and that his actions towards the end were supposed to be redemptive somehow, but I wasn't convinced of this. Buck tries to sell himself to us as a man on a mission to create some sort of substantive social change, but I wasn't buying what he was selling. The overwhelming majority of his actions were driven by self-interest, and to believe that he all of a sudden makes a decidedly "noble" decision in the end didn't track for me.
The novel is fast-paced and full of action, maybe a little too much to be honest. The ending felt contrived and unoriginal, and I finished the novel feeling somewhat unfulfilled. A lot of stuff happened but none of it was meaningful. I can see where the author was trying to go with this novel, and while I don't feel like this was a futile attempt, I think the hype and the insistence on this book being categorized as a satire might've hurt this book more than it helped. Maybe with a different set of expectations I would've cringed less and laughed more. Maybe this was a storyline that would've translated better for me on screen rather than through text.
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Luster by Raven Leilani
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Luster is an undoubtedly entertaining novel, particularly if you're the type who loves to see things crash and burn. Edie's life is an absolute train wreck. She makes poor decision after poor decision and doesn't seem at all interested in trying to course correct. The woman's a hot mess. The kind of mess that some may find relatable, but most would judge harshly. Edie is quite a character, and I could easily see her story as an indie movie or limited series starring Sasheer Zamata.
This dark comedy veers decidedly on the darker side. There were brief moments of eye-popping humor. But there were way more "WTF?!" moments - moments so heavy with dysfunction, so laced with trauma that you can't help but squirm a bit. Edie's a highly sexual tortured artist whose libido-driven decision-making leads her to homelessness and eventually forces her to live with her married lover and their adopted Black child. Her lover, Eric, may have a race fetish, but most definitely has a lot of issues. His wife Rebecca is a cold, controlling, Type A personality who is clearly unsatisfied with her family life. And poor, pre-pubescent Akilah has to manage their dysfunction while also struggling with her racial identity. Everyone in this novel needed a hug and a good dose of therapy.
Raven Leilani's writing style took a while for me to settle into. There were moments where Leilani's words were like poetry, subtle yet powerful. We were smack dab in the middle of Edie's mind; the reader is made privy to every thought. While this gave us great insight into Edie's layered complexities, at times it became a bit too much. Leiliani over-employs the use of run-on sentences in order to convey Edie's chaotic stream of consciousness, and sometimes the train would veer so far off the tracks that my eyes would glaze over. Some chapters felt exhausting to get through.
That being said, I never once considered giving up on the book altogether. I needed to see where things went with Edie, Eric, Rebecca, and Akilah. I needed to see if there would be any respite from the chaos. I needed to see if Edie ever got her shit together. This is all to say that I was hooked, even if something in me was resisting. In the end, my heart was warmed by witnessing the unfolding of Edie and Akilah's friendship; that was the bright glimmer of hope that led me through the novel's darkness.
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Black No More by George S. Schuyler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Talk about being sick and tired of every. damn. body. I often wondered about the thoughts that must've ran through George Schuyler's mind as he wrote this book. I wondered about the experiences that served as inspiration for this satirical work, and I marveled at how his astute observations regarding race, class, and culture have endured the test of time.
On the surface, this novel is clearly dated. The dialogue between characters contained terms and references that were clearly of their time. But delving further, the novel presents a scathing, cynical and damning critique about the dark crevices of American culture - the racism, religious fundamentalism, political dogmatism, and the really messed up things that people will do for a dollar, no matter with whom or where they identify socially.
The author pulls no punches. He brilliantly employs satire to hold up a mirror to the worst of American society. Heavy on the sarcasm, burningly cynical, borderline crass and at times a bit morbid, this book is not for the soul who is unready for a massive dose of truth. But if you're like those of us who have long found ourselves jaded by the everlasting turmoil of America's darkest sins and who silently detest those who choose to capitalize on them, this book will be a balm for your soul.
The book goes by speedily, and if you can appreciate the humor, you'll enjoy this book tremendously. You will giggle and sigh at the painfully familiar characters, you will laugh at the absurdity of the scenarios, and you will shake your head at the sobering silhouettes of human (and particularly American) nature. You may also find yourself wondering at points: was this book really written in the 1930s? Because in too many ways, too many things have remained the same.
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