The story may be familiar, but the characters in this drama soar.
BY CHRISTINE THOMAS
Please Step Back. Ben Greenman. Melville. 254 pages. $16.95 in paper.
Whether authors or entertainers, artists must continually travel back to the well to retrieve creative inspiration. Luckily Miami-raised New Yorker editor Ben Greenman has once again extracted a sharp, ebullient novel from his well, one with inherent star quality and sparkling prose that, for the moment at least, shines brighter than any previous work.
“Please Step Back” opens in 1954 Boston and centers on eleven-year-old Robert Franklin. Perfectly paced backstory soon fast forwards to 1963 after Robert has discovered the guitar, joined a band, and begun inventing a mythical life. He changes his name to Rock Foxx, then moves to San Francisco where “[n]ew smells popped like corn,” and “[c]hange—real change, not the word, but the thing—was in the air.” He talks of starting his own band with his old friend Tony, then talk becomes reality and Foxx transforms into a convincing musical icon whose dimensions unfold along the timeline of his talent.
At first the novel’s third-person narrator sticks close to Foxx, who even walks larger than life, “with a rolling walk, shoulder over hip, hip under shoulder.” These sections resound with crisp language tuned to the era’s slang, as Foxx speaks to everyone in mesmerizing riddles and rhymes. When dialoguing with Tony their conversation volleys back and forth with no sign of stopping, until it does. With promiscuous Yvette, the band’s female singer, it’s like they’re reciting poetry or performing a ditty. Every observation sings, whether a taut revelation of grief when the bassist “Lucas was so quiet he was loud,” noting a girl’s dress was “an unripe-apple green,” or evoking the hum of the band’s first moments on stage.
Still, it’s a welcome break between sets when the narrator begins to alternate sections centered on Robert’s wife Betty. A Chicago girl who works in a medical library, Betty first falls in love with Foxx’s music, then the man, a cycle that only continues. Hers is a less hazy, hallucinogenic narrative, but is nonetheless pregnant with emotion, revealing Foxx as a real man—one that “[s]ometimes when he smiled…looked cruel,” but “[w]hen he laughed…never looked cruel.” Through Betty Greenman draws out not only the shiny portrait of a funk star but the more important B-side—the woman who loves him and who unbeknown to Foxx, keeps him grounded and sane.
All the characters soar against a familiar backdrop—a young star’s rise, the inevitable hard times, the comeback, drugs and overdoses, relationships sacrificed on fame’s altar—and the well-known ‘60s and ‘70s era. But Greenman both acknowledges this and makes his portrait new, never explaining or translating, say, why Foxx’s decision to skip Woodstock mattered, why “August had a little light in it, mainly on account of King’s dream,” or just when “Dallas was a black spot on the map.”
Greenman juggles this larger-than-life plot and protagonist with remarkable finesse—each character is sharply drawn, each place immediately conjured in the imagination. The narrative pulses with life and natural beat, never a stray word or scene, instantly drawing you into its current and never settling down until the very last sentence. “Please Step Back” finishes like the closing of a beautiful song, one that can be turned over and listened to again—until Greenman releases his next big hit.