I had the pleasure of attending an event a couple weeks ago in honor of Ben Greenman’s book Please Step Back. A man in a wacky yellow jacket from a website that chronicles world records attempted to have Ben set a record for the longest story written in one minute (he failed). Todd Zuniga from Opium magazine interviewed him and had him complete a literary Rorschach test. Audience members spoke about their literary projects (including our own Underwater New York–www.underwaternewyork.com). And, Ben read the beginning of his novel, inspiring me to purchase it and read the rest.
As I learned at the event, the germ of Please Step Back began as a biography of the musical artist Sly Stone. Then, the same thing happened to Ben as often happens to me when I attempt to write nonfiction–he wanted to make stuff up. So, eventually that project morphed into this one, which, though it contains grains of Sly Stone’s life, is fiction.
Chapters are titled with the date and either “Robert” or “Betty.” Robert, or Rock Foxx as he rechristens himself, rises from being an unknown black kid singing on the streets in Boston to becoming the rock god at the center of ’60s/’70s ground breaking mixed-race / -gender band at the top of the charts. Along his way to the top, he meets and marries Betty, a down-to-earth woman who sets up house with him in LA. After one devastating miscarriage, she gives birth to their son, Dewey. As we all know from watching Behind the Music, or the real-time career paths of many wonderful musicians, Robert’s rise is a setup for his fall.
The Foxxes disintegrate: fighting, drugging, ODing, disbanding. Sales and press aren’t what they used to be. Betty spends more and more time with her dying mother in Chicago. Robert sleeps with a parade of women, sleeps as his house and studio burn down, as his child grows up. It’s a sad story–and as I said before, it’s familiar.
But that’s okay. The real story here is in the prose. Filled with internal rhyme, alliteration, outrageous linguistic maneuvering, dialogue that reads even more like lyrics than the lyrics Ben actually penned for Robert–it’s unbelievable. The writing fills each page with such excitement and electricity, I felt I could find anything interesting in this author’s hands. Here’s a passage from page 28-29, right in the beginning, when Robert is beginning to transform into Rock. It’s not the most musical in the book, but it’s quite a hook:
Wyoming was everywhere. At mile maker 158, he saw a sign for the Continental Divide. He pulled over on the shoulder of the road and poked Tony awake. “Ow,” Tony said. “Where are we?”
“Opinion is divided,” Robert said. “I’m getting out of the car.”
“You’re hyped, Robert.”
“I’m not. Not hyped. And not Robert.” He stepped out of the car and walked to the sign. Then he jumped back and forth across its shadow. “Franklin, Foxx, Fanklin, Foxx.”
“What are you doing?” said Tony.
“Crossing over to see myself.” He jumped again and didn’t come down for years.
As the book winds down and Robert and Betty’s alienation from each other begins, their chapters begin to diverge, intersecting less and less, until they barely touch at all. I was waiting to read a resolution, a confrontation, a moment when some sort of tenderness was recaptured, but the book took the brave route, the real route, and denied me. I won’t say what the ending is, of course–it may seem like I just gave it away but I didn’t. What I will say is that it wasn’t what I wanted and that made me like it more.