Dance to the Music
Ben Greenman's new novel, Please Step Back, is a Day-Glo-colored ecstatic mess about rock and roll. Please stars a rough analogue of Sly (of ...and the Family Stone) with the ostentatious stage name "Rock Foxx." It's not a very long novel, but it runs all over the place, getting its fingerprints on everything—race relations, the love generation, the creative process, and the birth of what became modern pop music—without a care for politeness or propriety.
Novels about pop music are exceptionally tough to pull off. The combination of thoughtful literary writing and the music's wild, gloriously disposable nature can make for a strangulated Frankenstein's monster of a book. The first half of Jonathan Lethem's novel Fortress of Solitude, about the birth of hiphop, is probably the closest any author has come in the last 20 years to really capturing the essence of his musical subject in words, but the book couldn't sustain the crazy energy of the first half and collapsed on itself by the end.
Greenman proves the better of Lethem here: Please stays amped up all the way through. Foxx is a jumper cable of a main character. When he's introduced as "The Preacher of Soul" at a concert in Denver, Foxx bristles and fights the way a poet fights, using language as a weapon:
"I ain't no preacher, 'cause a preacher's a teacher," he said during a particularly unrecognizable version of "Wednesday Ain't So Bad." "I'm just disrupting the church with a cavity search."
Greenman seems to feed on Foxx's inventiveness, using music as a metaphor for everything up to and including life: "Sometimes things rhymed, like in a verse, and some other things repeated, like in a chorus." The creative process has rarely seemed so animated in modern fiction as when Foxx-via-Greenman describes it: "He went out on the porch and tried to write his own songs, but he was like a little boy trying on a man's clothes. The words sat there, but they wouldn't stand up."
The problem with telling a rock-and-roll story is that Behind the Music has trained even the most unimaginative reader to expect what is coming. It's to Greenman's credit that, though he hits the anticipated notes—drugs, sexual experimentation, band infighting—they are not what drives the melody of the novel: Please isn't some tired reiteration of the Icarus story. Instead, it's a love story about the divine and difficult relationship between a man and the beauty that he can make with his mind.