Langston Collin Wilkins

A year after his acclaimed bestseller, Blacktop Wasteland, S.A. Cosby returns with the equally gripping but more complex Razorblade Tears. Set in rural and urban Virginia, the story centers on the thorny partnership between ex-convicts Ike, who is Black, and Buddy Lee, who is white. The duo is drawn together by the unfathomable murder of their sons, Isiah and Derek, a married couple who lived a relatively innocuous life. Fueled by law enforcement’s lack of interest in solving the case, as well as by their own personal guilt, Ike and Buddy Lee set off to uncover who killed their sons and unleash their own brand of vigilante justice.

Razorblade Tears is simultaneously a contemplative mystery and a stunning thrill ride. A master of his craft, Cosby balances incredibly complicated characters with enveloping suspense and some of the most captivatingly violent scenes that you will ever read. At the same time, Razorblade Tears features poignant, purposeful social commentary as Cosby takes a critical yet sensitive look at homophobia, racism, classicism and toxic masculinity. Ike and Buddy Lee’s quest puts their lives at risk but also challenges their senses of self and understanding of the world. Their self-interrogation and personal transformation prompt readers to examine their own sociopolitical standpoints.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: S.A. Cosby on writing the literary blues.


Cosby’s writing is both fearless and sympathetic, exhibiting his formidable intellect alongside vivid imagery, sharp wit and intricate plot lines. Razorblade Tears transcends genre boundaries and is a must-read for anyone looking for a mystery that provokes and thrills in equal measure.

A year after his acclaimed bestseller, Blacktop Wasteland, S.A. Cosby returns with the equally gripping but more complex Razorblade Tears.

S.A. Cosby has taken the literary world by storm. His first release from a major publisher, 2020’s Blacktop Wasteland, proved his ability to scale the professional heights without compromising his identity as a Black man raised in rural Virginia, even in an industry marred by severe inequities. Buttressed by its antiheroic protagonist, Beauregard, the car chase-strewn Southern noir made 22 best of the year lists, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery and was swiftly optioned for film, bringing Cosby a level of attention that he hadn’t yet seen in his 20-plus-year career. 

“The response to Blacktop Wasteland has been beyond my wildest dreams,” Cosby says from his home in Virginia. “I’ve been amazed by the fact that people are willing to take a walk through the shoes of someone like Beauregard.” 

Now Cosby returns with Razorblade Tears, which centers on the unlikely partnership between two ex-convicts: Ike, who is African American, and Buddy Lee, who is white. They pair up to avenge the untimely murders of their two sons, who were married and living seemingly harmless lives. As they investigate this mysterious tragedy, which seems to be connected to both a white supremacist biker gang and a furtive young woman named Tangerine, Ike and Buddy Lee go on a thrilling journey of self-discovery and social interrogation across the book’s 336 pages. 

Razorblade Tears is a mission-driven novel that finds Cosby directly deconstructing the cultural plague of homophobia, both in larger society and in the Black community. Ike and Buddy Lee’s quest for vengeance is partly fueled by the guilt they feel over their rejection of their queer-identifying sons while they were still alive. The genesis of the book was a conversation Cosby had with a Black gay friend who was struggling to decide whether to come out to his parents. 

“When I was a kid, someone calling you the N-word and somebody calling you a derogatory term for someone in the LGBTQ community would cause you to fight on sight,” Cosby says. “And in some instances, it was almost like people felt like it was worse to be called a derogatory name for an LGBTQ member than it was to be called the N-word. We really need to confront the issue of homophobia in our community, and as a crime writer, I decided to look at it through the prism of the genre that I love.”

"I love my hometown . . . I love the people there. But that doesn’t absolve myself or them from the truth."

Ike and Buddy Lee’s quest for vengeance forces them to question their complicated ideas about manhood, which have caused harm to themselves and others throughout their lives. Masculinity is a subject that Cosby has never shied away from in either his personal and creative life. “I think there’s such a convoluted sense of masculinity in the South and in rural towns and small towns,” he says. “I think that we have to expand our definition of what we consider masculine. That’s definitely an issue I’m exploring in Razorblade Tears.”

The rural South is not just a backdrop but also a generative force in Cosby’s writing. Through the lens of crime fiction, the author explores the contradictory nature of Southern living. Cosby grew up in Mathews County, a rural area a couple of hours away from Virginia’s largest city, Virginia Beach, and home to some 8,000 residents. “I love my hometown, and every book I write is basically [about] my hometown in disguise. I love the people there. But that doesn’t absolve myself or them from the truth,” he says. 

“Living in a rural environment, you have a sense of community and belonging that I don’t know you get anywhere else,” he continues. “At the same time, I live in a small town where there’s a gigantic Confederate statue right in front of the courthouse. I’m fully aware and cognizant of these diametrically opposed ideas. I have Black love, a Black family and a sense of belonging while living in a town where some of the inhabitants still idealize racist traitors.”

Cosby’s writing career reflects the same type of resolve that his characters display as they navigate their arduous lives. “It was a long and circuitous route to getting published,” he notes. Cosby fell in love with the craft when he first published a letter to Santa in the local newspaper at 7 years old. He studied English in college but was forced to drop out after his mother became ill. Since then, life has taken Cosby through a variety of spaces and occupations, but he always remained committed to writing. “I never gave up, I just kept plugging away at it,” Cosby, who is now 47, says. 

In 2011, he published a short story in a small quarterly called Thug Lit. “That was the beginning of my career as a crime writer,” he says. “I wrote more short stories that got published. I ended up publishing a short novel called My Darkest Prayer through an independent publishing firm. And then from that, I took the leap and wrote Blacktop Wasteland.”

Like Blacktop Wasteland, which won acclaim for its potent mix of social commentary and white-knuckle thrills, Razorblade Tears also offers understated yet powerful commentary about America’s racial problem. Many people, from all points on the political spectrum, reduce racism to moments of interpersonal conflict and unequal access. But as Cosby demonstrates throughout the book, racism also festers in the nuances and subtexts. This can especially be seen through the adroit and well-voiced conversations between Ike and Buddy Lee, who don’t like each other but are forced to work together. 

“There are scenes where Buddy Lee says casually racist things to Ike, and literally in the midst of them trying to find vengeance for their children, Ike has to break it down to explain his experience,” Cosby says. “There is a scene where Buddy Lee is looking at Ike’s lawn care truck and is like, ‘Hey man, you talk so much about racism, but you got this nice truck, and you got a business.’ And Ike is like, ‘Yeah, I got this nice truck, but I get pulled over like once a month. I’m doing all right, but when I go in the store, people don’t respect me.’ So, they’re having conversations about race and what race means. They’re growing in respect to their appreciation for their sons and their sons’ love, but they’re also growing and changing in respect to each other.”

In addition to homophobia, masculinity and race, Razorblade Tears examines poverty, classism and rural/urban divides. Cosby admits that grappling with such serious issues caused anxiety during the writing process. “It was terrifying, but as a writer you’ve got to challenge yourself,” he says. “I don’t think any of us are free or valued until everybody is free or valued. So I wanted to push myself and see if I could talk about those issues in a voice that was true to me.”

Cosby handles such material with great care. He conducted serious research to ensure that he could address these issues without causing further harm. “I think research is 30% to 40% of your writing if you’re trying to do it well,” he explains. “If you’re tackling something that is outside your purview, you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. And I think not only doing my own research but also having authenticity readers or sensitivity readers is an important part of the process.” 

Razorblade Tears’ commitment to addressing serious social issues is balanced by temperate pacing and a consistent rhythmic pulse that reflect the energy of rural Southern life. It’s like the blues, with Cosby as a contemporary manifestation of legendary bluesmen like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, whom he cites as influences. 


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Razorblade Tears.


In further accordance with the bluesman aesthetic, Cosby’s work is also creative ethnography, pulling from the everyday oral traditions of African Americans. “I grew up around a lot of backyard orators and barbecue philosophers. So I listened to my uncles and them trash talk over a spades or dominoes game. Or I would ride my bike down to the basketball court and listen to them trash talk,” he says. “Listening to the way people talk is a huge influence on me.”

Cosby’s investment in realistic dialogue and detailed characterization is never clearer than in Razorblade Tears incredibly rich and nuanced portraits of Black criminals, those who orbit them and others on the periphery of the law. Ike is a formidable character, a natural leader who commands respect in every space he enters. His temperament has been shaped, at least in part, by blood battles on the streets and in prison. Throughout the book, Ike manages his violent disposition as though it’s a chronic illness: It’s kept mostly at bay, but there’s always risk of a flare-up.

Some may question why Cosby, a man of such immense talents, would spend his time writing about Black criminals, especially considering the way Black people have been both symbolically and physically criminalized in this country. He is fearless and candid in response. “I think the value in exploring this particular aspect of our lives is to show that people can make mistakes, and still ultimately find redemption,” he says. “I have family members who have rightly and wrongly been convicted of crime, and they’ve come out and pulled themselves together and got second chances. If we try to hide that, then we’re no better than someone who says they see no color. We have to explore the full width and breadth of the Black experience.” 

As a Black writer at a time of great social and political division, Cosby feels a deep sense of responsibility. “As an African American writer, your first charge is to tell the truth about your experience,” says Cosby. He hopes that his own truth-telling will inspire others to do the same. “I would love for a little Black boy or girl to pick up my book and be like, ‘Wow, man, this dude is doing this. If he is publishing, then I can do it, too.’” 

 

Author photo by Sam Sauter Photography.

S.A. Cosby writes the blues with a rhythmic, energetic thriller that addresses social issues within the richly detailed setting of the rural South.

In his debut novel, Mateo Askaripour offers a witty yet thrilling examination of the complexities of race in corporate America. The novel centers on Darren Vender, a 22-year-old Black man who shares a Brooklyn brownstone with his mother and works as a shift leader at Starbucks. Despite graduating at the top of his high school class, Darren did not go to college and seems to lack ambition. That changes after a chance encounter with Rhett, the CEO of a buzzy tech startup called Sumwun, who invites Darren into the ruthless world of corporate sales.

At Sumwun, Darren’s attempt to climb the corporate ladder is met with multidimensional racist resistance. Sumwun’s director of sales and Darren’s direct supervisor, Clyde, is a quintessential racist. He disproportionately criticizes Darren and employs incredibly demeaning language while doing so. However, Sumwun also features more subtle forms of racism. For example, white employees often remark that Darren resembles Black celebrities who look nothing like Darren—and who look wildly different from each other.

While fighting for his upward mobility at Sumwun, Darren risks alienating his family, friends and himself. Eventually, an unfortunate incident rattles the foundation of Sumwun and sends Darren on a life-changing and culture-shifting journey that is full of twists, turns and some truly profound messages.

Black Buck is an ambitious book. While being an intellectual and captivating work of satire, it also serves as an instruction manual for Black and brown people working in white-dominated spaces. Askaripour embeds tokens of wisdom in his well-crafted plot and delivers direct messages of advice and encouragement to readers. There is great risk in such ambition, but Askaripour is a fine writer and superbly executes his vision.

This is an entertaining, accessible and thorough look at America's race problem, a book both of the moment and one for all seasons. It’s a necessary read for those living under the weight of oppressive systems as well as for those looking to better understand their complicity within them.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: How Mateo Askaripour climbed the corporate ladder, then spun what he learned into fiction gold.

In his debut novel, Mateo Askaripour offers a witty yet thrilling examination of the complexities of race in corporate America.

After learning what it takes to make it in the corporate world, Mateo Askaripour spins that knowledge into gold in his riotous first novel.

“You’re likely in for a wild ride, and you will make mistakes,” says author Mateo Askaripour via Zoom from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “But as long as you learn from them and don’t judge yourself too harshly, you can retain a sense of self and still succeed.”

Askaripour’s comments reflect the central message of his debut novel, Black Buck, in which a young Black man named Darren attempts to navigate the punishingly racist corporate tech world without losing either himself or the love of his friends and family. With a complex yet accessible plot, rich characters and Askaripour’s sharp wit, Black Buck is a page-turning satirical examination of corporate racial struggle. And with its tips and tricks for achieving success in white-dominated spaces, the book also acts as an instruction manual for Black and brown corporate climbers.

“I wrote this book so that anyone who reads it, especially Black and brown people, would be able to take away a few gems on how to advance their own lives and the lives of those who they love.”

Askaripour’s professional life began in the same corporate tech world that he thoroughly deconstructs in his novel. The Long Island native was a prodigy of sorts, moving from intern to director of sales at a tech startup within a year. When he needed an outlet from the fast-paced and ruthless world of sales, he turned to the written word. His first two attempts at a novel fell short of the mark. Then in late 2017, he decided to write from experience.

“I realized that writing something that felt true to me meant that I couldn’t shy away from the things that were closest to me in my life,” he explains. Namely, sales, race and startups. In Black Buck, Darren’s quest to establish himself in sales causes internal and external turmoil. Forced assimilation, intrusive demands on his time and the stresses of racism create rifts in his relationships, self-identity and sense of control. There are moments when the reader struggles to determine whether Darren is a hero or a villain. That’s not a sign of any misstep on Askaripour’s part, though. Rather, it reflects the existential battle that Black and brown people face in these environments.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: The unique format of Black Buck makes for a great audiobook.


“There were times when I felt like I was mad powerful,” Askaripour says of his sales days. “I was 24 years old, managing 30 people and making over $100K. I had all these people looking up to me. In those moments, it’s so easy to forget that you’re Black. It was so easy to forget because you have some money and people are looking up to you. But then there were times when I’d hire a new person, a white man or woman, and I could tell that the first time I would ask them to do something or tell them to do something, they’d look at me strangely. Years later, I began to understand what those initial looks meant. They were saying, I gotta listen to a Black person? Especially this dude? Some of them never had to listen to a Black person in their life before, or even a person of color.”

Black Buck book coverAs Darren climbs the corporate ladder, some of the racism he encounters is overt, while other forms are stealthily inscribed into the culture of the company. Reflecting both his empirical understanding of the problem and his writing talent, Askaripour does an incredible job of showing how companies often use Black culture as a source of inspiration and mobilization while at the same time generating an internal culture of intolerance for Black people.

“They have this cognitive dissonance where they will take Black culture and use it to energize and further their interests, but how many Black people do they know?” he says. “And how willing are they to sit back and ask themselves whether they are helping or hurting these people that they never really think about?”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Black Buck.


Despite its grounding in racial strife, Black Buck is not a pessimistic novel at all. The African diasporic philosophy “each one, teach one” undergirds the book. Brought to America from West Africa, “each one, teach one” suggests that African Americans who have effectively navigated racial subjugation should guide and open doors for others in their community.

“I think we need to realize that until we’re in a position where Black and brown people are giving other Black and brown people those life-changing opportunities at such an exponential rate, there is going to be an obvious disparity, and there is going to be an imbalance. And that needs to change,” Askaripour says. “The ‘each one, teach one’ mentality is definitely a way to change that.”

For Askaripour, Black Buck is a form of service, an intentional attempt to positively affect the material circumstances of Black and brown people. “I wrote this book so that anyone who reads it, especially Black and brown people, would be able to take away a few gems on how to advance their own lives and the lives of those who they love,” he says. “It doubles as a sales manual for that very real reason. I feel hopeful that if someone reads this book and understands its journey, they would be able to better their lives and probably get an entry-level sales job. Yeah, man, ‘each one, teach one’ is not just essential to the book. It’s at the core of my life right now.”

 

Author photo by Andrew “FifthGod” Askaripour

After learning what it takes to make it in the corporate world, Mateo Askaripour spins that knowledge into gold in his riotous first novel, Black Buck.

In Deacon King Kong, the venerable James McBride’s first novel since winning the National Book Award in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird, a grief-stricken church deacon nicknamed Sportcoat shoots Deems, a 19-year-old drug dealer, at a Brooklyn-area housing project called the Cause Houses in 1969.

The shooting shocks the community of the Causes Houses and nearby Five Ends Baptist Church and triggers a chain of subplots that McBride explores in touching and intriguing ways. Such a web of interconnected relationships could produce confusion when from the pen of a less talented writer. McBride, however, gives every character finely tuned identities and experiences. Aside from Sportcoat and Deems, there is Officer Potts Mullen, a worn-down white beat cop who yearns for the heart of cynical yet warm-hearted African American pastor’s wife Sister Gee. Soup is a recently released ex-convict and Nation of Islam convert who seeks to heal the community that he used to hurt. Italian mobster Tommy Elephante, also known as the Elephant, is the neighborhood boogeyman who is pursuing a treasure hunt left behind by his deceased father. These subplots are tied together by a mysterious link that reveals itself over time.

These are just a few of the threads that comprise the web of experiences that generate the book’s ultimate protagonist, the Cause Houses. The characters are mere microorganisms; the Cause is the body. McBride imagines the project building not just as a setting but also as a living being that speaks, laughs, cries and, most importantly, loves. 

Deacon King Kong engages with serious issues including grief, poverty, drug use and gun violence, among others. At the same time, it is an incredibly funny novel. McBride’s comedic language and timing are precise and dynamic. Comedy is cultural, and in a truly exceptional move, he gives authentic comedic voices to characters with wide-ranging racial and cultural backgrounds.

Deacon King Kong finds a literary master at work, and reading the book’s 384 pages feels like both an invigorating short sprint and an engrossing marathon. It is a deeply meditative novel that leaves the reader swept up in a wave of concurrent and conflicting emotions. Deacon King Kong reaffirms James McBride’s position among the greatest American storytellers of our time.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: James McBride discusses creative freedom, the black church and examining race in fiction.

Deacon King Kong finds a literary master at work, and reading the book’s 384 pages feels like both an invigorating short sprint and an engrossing marathon. It is a deeply meditative novel that leaves the reader swept up in a wave of concurrent and conflicting emotions.

James McBride is one of America’s foremost storytellers, a contemporary urban griot whose works offer nuanced portrayals of America’s complex cultural landscape. He first captured our hearts and minds with his 1995 memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. Since then, he’s worked in multiple genres and formats to explore race, love, loss and the basic human threads that unite us all. Following a short story collection and a well-received biography of James Brown, Deacon King Kong marks McBride’s return to the novel. 

McBride’s third novel, 2013’s The Good Lord Bird, won the National Book Award in fiction. Following up a major award winner would cause anxiety in some, but not for McBride. “I never thought I’d win a National Book Award, you know,” he says. “So whatever I got out of it is gravy. The pressure was off. I’ve already demonstrated that I can write to the satisfaction of my peers and colleagues on the business side. I felt creatively free to do what I wanted to do. So I wasn’t that worried about it.” 

“Courage, modesty and morality are still the spine that holds America together.”

Deacon King Kong centers on the fallout after an elderly, grief-stricken Baptist church deacon named Sportcoat shoots a young former baseball player-turned-drug dealer named Deems at the Cause Houses housing project in 1969. McBride uses his sharp pen and incredible wit to explore the inner lives and interconnections of a diverse cast of characters who either live in or engage with the Cause Houses and nearby Five Ends Baptist Church.  

The book features a large set of characters, but the Cause Houses emerge as the central protagonist, taking an almost human form. The buildings are the body, and the characters’ experiences are the organs and organisms that bring it to life. The Cause Houses breathe, communicate, hurt and laugh. For McBride, humanizing the projects was an intentional move. 

“There is a dynamic that exists within the lifestyle of this neighborhood . . . and that dynamic involves a lot of love and a lot of respect for each other,” he says. “And a lot of diversity. A lot of mixing other races and not just white/black, but the mixing of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Haitians.” 

McBride grew up in a housing project in Red Hook, Brooklyn, but as he notes, it would be a mistake to simply trace the Cause Houses back to his own project experiences. “The Red Hook Houses were not like the Cause Houses, but the same love was there,” he says. “Some of it is based on my experiences living in Red Hook as a child, but a lot of it is based on my experiences living in black America as a man. Because the Cause Houses are in every city, but they just have different names.” 

The black church also stars in Deacon King Kong. McBride, who was raised in a black church, bristles at “poor media portrayals” that reduce it to unfortunate stereotypes. Five Ends Baptist Church is a corrective. It is his attempt to illuminate the black church as a site of great intrigue and inspiration. 


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: An interview with James McBride about his debut novel.


“I really wanted to present the black church as a dynamic place with fully dimensional characters, some of whom are likable, and some of whom are not,” he says. “Some of them are funny, and some of them are not. It’s not just a library or a community center. It’s not a social club. It’s a little bit of all those things. Ultimately, it’s a volunteer agency where people get together and have fun. The faith that holds them together is what makes them interesting, vulnerable and funny at the same time. If you look beyond the race and focus on the humanity of the people, the church is a fascinating place to write about.” 

Despite the seriousness of some of its themes, Deacon King Kong is an incredibly funny novel, with sharp comedic language and precise timing that never lets up. Aside from his own ingenuity, McBride’s brand of humor has a variety of influences. He considers Kurt Vonnegut to be the “most extraordinary literary humorist,” but he’s also gleaned much from stage comedians like cross-cultural titans Richard Pryor and George Carlin. He also highlights the impact of underappreciated African American comedians like Redd Foxx, Nipsey Russell and Moms Mabley. He reserves his highest praise for Dick Gregory, whom he suggests was “the one comedian who really understood a lot about the black experience in America.”

Deacon King Kong is an incredibly funny novel, with sharp comedic language and precise timing that never lets up.

When asked what he thinks today’s readers can learn from a story about a shooting in the projects set over 50 years ago, McBride is very direct. “The aim of the book is to show people that we are all alike, that our aims are the same and that we are more alike than we are different,” he says. “We’re currently at a time where we need to be reminded about humanity and our heritage, and the fact that courage, modesty and morality are still the spine that holds America together.”

McBride has had a remarkably successful career by anyone’s standards. Aside from his hotshot debut and award-winning novel, his books have been optioned and adapted for film and television, and he collaborated with legendary filmmaker Spike Lee on the script for Red Hook Summer. When asked to envision the next stage of his career, McBride’s answer illuminates his ultimate purpose as a writer: “I hope that one day my work around the subject of race will be irrelevant and that we’ll find something else to write about. You know, in a hundred years I hope that we’ll be writing about how even though Martians have two heads and one eyeball and look like two-headed Cyclopses, they’re really pretty much the same as us.” 

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Deacon King Kong.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described The Good Lord Bird as McBride’s first novel, not his third.

We spoke with National Book Award-winner James McBride about creative freedom, the black church and examining race in fiction.

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