Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Review: Please Step Back by Ben Greenman

My latest finished novel tackles a topic that has always been near and dear to my heart.


I've tended to gravitate towards books that revolve around music, and I've made it an unofficial quest to pick up as many as I can find. Back in high school, Blake Nelson's Rock Star, Superstar started my fascination with music in novel form, and it's stayed with me to this day with books such as Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street, which I just completed last month.

For these reasons, I was eager to dig into Ben Greenman's Please Step Back.

How I Discovered It: Purely accidental. The flashy color of the spine grabbed my attention on a random shelf at a bookstore in Wrigleyville and, after flipping through a few pages and reading the back cover, it went straight into my purchase pile. Those kinds of unexpected finds are often the best.

How Long It Took To Read: About two weeks.

Overview: Greenman's Please Step Back follows the travels of soul/funk/rock star Rock Foxx (real name Robert Franklin) and his (fictional) band, The Foxxes. Set in the psychedelic, booming, and drug-infused music world of The Sixties, the novel offers a view of the ebbs and flows of a world-famous rock icon. As the Foxxes begin to hit it big, Foxx eventually courts his eventual wife, Betty, after she ambles backstage after a show one night. The novel very much reads like an album, and the idea that "every record has two sides" is represented in the shifting (and distancing) accounts from Foxx and Betty's respective perspectives throughout much of the narrative. Being a rock star isn't nearly as easy or as glamorous as it seems, and, when you get right down to it, Rock Foxx serves as the epitome of this very idea.

Review: I had high hopes for Please Step Back, and it shot up my reading list like a cannon as I thought more and more about it. I guess part of the reason for that is the fact that I'm currently in the (slow) process of writing a music-centric book, and I want to soak up as much material on the subject as possible. In all honesty, however, I don't feel that I gained much after reading this novel.

The story itself was as tight as a Ramones song. The narrative flowed well, for the most part; I never had to read and reread sentences to make them stick in my brain. Trouble is, I didn't have that burning desire to pick the book up night in and night out. It often went untouched for days at a time, kind of that middling book that isn't much of a page-turner, but one that I enjoyed just enough to want to finish.

Ultimately, I think the reason for my semi-apathetic view of Please Step Back was the fact that I didn't feel attached to any of the characters. The up-and-coming Rock Foxx was a pleasure to read (the first fifty pages are this novel's best), but I became more and more disenchanted with him as it wen't on. I flat-out didn't care by the time I trudged to the third section (of four total) of the novel. The back-and-forth structure between Rock Foxx and Betty in the second part was enjoyable (Betty's nostalgic passages were moving and well-written), but I'm not so sure a predictable in-love, out-of-love romance was what this novel needed. On top of that, the novel lacked a stable supporting cast.  Some members of the Foxxes are only given a few sentences in the novel all together, and most of the other people around Rock Foxx felt like forced caricatures. The sex-crazed drummer, the guitar player who wants the pretty lead singer, the hip record executive. Even the best characters in the world of fiction need a bit of support.

In the end, Please Step Back hits its stride when it focuses on the music. Almost all of the artists, albums, and songs mentioned are real. Greenman's vast expansive musical tastes become apparent while flipping through the first few pages. As it stands, I think the novel shines when it blends the perspectives of musical fiction and reality. Foxx idolizes Ray Charles and engages in a running competition with James Brown. The Foxxes repeatedly hit the Top 10 on the Billboard charts. Perhaps my favorite scene of the novel was when Rock meets Mick Jagger and Keith Richards while opening for the Stones. Fictional words given to real rock stars in a fictional novel still somehow feel real, and those select scenes rang true more than virtually anything else in this book.

Flipping to the last page of a novel is usually a cause for celebration, a moment of joy and a time for reflection. I felt little of that by the time I finished this novel. I was proud of myself for finishing it, but the expected end-of-book emotion bank was nearly vacant. Please Step Back is a relatively easy read, and one privy to spurts of greatness. Overall, however, it doesn't lend itself to that deep, indescribable attachment readers feel to the books they love.

Grade: C+

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