When making a creative work about the making of a creative work, the author has a task more difficult than most. How do they portray their character’s novel, film, album, painting, or play in a way that makes it seem genuine? Nothing removes a reader from the work at hand like a description of something that doesn’t ring true. The best novels that take on this challenge leave us aching to experience the works described in them: the novels of Benjamin Sachs as described by Paul Auster in Leviathan, for example. Alternately, the works in question might be intentionally flawed, such as the highbrow and middlebrow works mocked in Martin Amis’s The Information. In his novel Please Step Back, Ben Greenman takes as his subject a musician named Robert Franklin who becomes a celebrity named Rock Foxx, leading his band to a series of commercial and critical successes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And while the song that gives the novel its title also calls to mind some oddities in the novel’s structure, Please Step Back is ultimately evocative both of the creative process and of the tensions determined by its setting.
It speaks to Greenman’s dedication that the albums described in the novel by Franklin’s band The Foxxes* are laid out in great detail, from artwork to singles and arrangements to selected lyrical highlights. And it feels right: these fictional albums could rest in a collection beside contemporary works from the likes of Curtis Mayfield and Betty Davis. Therefore, it’s painful when the book is set down and you remember that, in fact, these Foxxes albums don’t exist. There’s one exception to that: a recording of the title song made by musician Swamp Dogg. “Please Step Back,” for a work that gives this novel its title, arrives relatively late in the book, and it’s this element that throws Greenman’s narrative just slightly out of balance.
Please Step Back is structured like a double album, with its four parts corresponding with Sides One through Four. It opens with Robert Franklin in Boston in 1954, watching his cousin die suddenly and, in the days that follow, crystallizing his nascent talent for music into something more: “That night, after the funeral, he replayed the song in his head, first like he heard it on the radio, then like he thought it needed to be.” (It’s a thumbnail encapsulation of one man’s creative process that evokes Dream Boogie, Peter Guralnick’s biography of Sam Cooke.) Nine years later, Robert is living in Boston, playing unhappily in a series of bands until a meeting with a like-minded guitarist sends the pair of them out west and prompts Robert to adopt the name “Rock Foxx”. Soon after, he lends his name to a band, hits follow, and Rock Foxx becomes a star. It’s at this point that the narrative splits, alternating sections from the perspectives of Robert and Betty, a nurse in Chicago who will eventually marry Robert. The Foxxes become more and more successful, and as they do they begin clashing both with the people around them and internally. And anyone familiar with the expected trajectory of a successful band will likely have a sense of what to expect next: the Behind the Music could write itself.
At the core of the novel is the relationship between Betty and Robert. And what makes much of it work is Greenman’s subtlety: there’s one observation about Robert made by a supporting character in the latter half of the novel that not only lends horrific clarity to something about his personality, but also clarifies the nature of the novel’s structure. As protagonists go, Robert becomes more and more elusive as Please Step Back progresses: a fascinating, obsessive, frustrating figure who quietly surrenders his place at the center of the novel. There are echoes of Sly Stone in Rock Foxx: Greenman borrows enough from history that the Foxxes’ history resonates, but leaves sufficient space for these characters’ paths to become distinctive.
The novel takes its title from a song that Robert, in the novel’s later sections, seeks to perfect. It’s the only Robert Franklin composition whose lyrics appear in full, and their placement after the novel’s final sentence acts a summary of what has come before. At the same time, Robert’s obsession with perfecting this one song in particular occurs very late in the novel. Had Greenman spent more time with his characters in the mid-70s, or if “Please Step Back” had arrived earlier, Robert’s fixation on it would have felt weightier, either as a potential source for redemption or a heartbreaking reach for artistic relevance. And for all that Greenman’s subtle structures assert themselves, his alternate history of rock, pop, and R&B is a deeply compelling one, with small details and minor characters (the George Clinton-inspired Anchor; maverick record-company executive Leon Brisbane) who could carry novels of their own. Ultimately, what flaws Please Step Back does possess are significantly outweighed by its achievements. The fact that Greenman can skillfully evoke the looping relationship between sociopolitical tension and creative work in the midst of telling a compelling story is no small achievement. And if you listen hard enough, you can dance to it.
*-it’s a strange accident of timing that the name of this fictional band doesn’t summon up thoughts of genres being reassembled but, instead, the harmony-rich, intentionally retro sounds of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes.
About the author:
Tobias Carroll lives in Brooklyn, New York. He has covered music and books for a number of publications, and his fiction has appeared in THE2NDHAND, 3:AM, Word Riot, and as part of Featherproof Books’ “Light Reading” series. He is presently working on multiple projects of varying lengths.