May 2009

Kati Nolfi

fiction

Please Step Back by Ben Greenman

Please Step Back travels westward from Boston 1954 to California 1980. There is the promise of freedom from oppression, transformation and elevation of identity, and demi-stardom in the western lands. Ben Greenman traces the familiar historical and pop cultural fault lines of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, misogyny, racism, and social upheaval of the mid-to-late 20th century. What more can be said about the hopes, near-escapes, and almost-revolution of this time? Please Step Back, like most popular accounting of this era, glorifies, calcifies, and warns of the heat and flash of 1960s rock. Greenman can write evocatively about rock ‘n’ roll, approximating its ineffable power to make people lose their minds, especially in the relationship between the characters Robert and Betty:

Then came a swell of piano, and then Robert sang "oh," a long and mournful "oh" straight out of Ray Charles. It hung there in the air, then died out, and Betty sang, "Why?" She held the note, sustained it, turned it up at the end, and just as her vibrato began to break the bass burbled up again… Betty reached down as deep as she could, tried to match him, and ripped out her second "Why?" She could feel Robert’s eyes on her in the dark. Why did he look at her now, but never in the light? Why did he spend all his time away? Why didn’t he hold his son more? Why did she hate him as much as she loved him? Why? The question didn’t answer a thing.

Greenman’s plot trajectory and characters, however, are rote and uninspired compared to his music writing. They are vehicles and vessels for the music, clotting the narrative or fulfilling stereotypes. It is unclear whether Greenman scolds or mourns the indiscriminate satisfaction of impulses and pleasure and the undisciplined violence of the sexual revolution, the patriarchy in disguise as the magical artist man free from hang-ups and responsibilities.

The nihilism of Please Step Back confuses the reader to the author’s understanding of privilege, power, control, oppression, especially since we can excuse and explain the sexism and objectification of women. He positions sexism as a historical relic, asking haven’t we come a long way since then? But I am uneasy thinking that the author is implicitly critiquing the humiliation of women by placing them in history.

The novel’s perspective shifts over the years between Robert and Betty; instead of chapters we get a character name and a date. Robert experiences a childhood trauma at eleven and spends the next few years playing music until he leaves Boston buoyed by dreams of rock stardom. He “becomes” Rock Foxx, assembles a successful group, makes a few records, marries Betty, and does lots of drugs. Curtis Mayfield and Miles Davis brighten the corners. The portrait of Rock Foxx and his sex- and drug-addled friends is a probably accurate and unlikable rendition of the '60s.  

There is something interesting here about the creation of identity. Robert’s self-naming shifts and questions his identity. Is Robert his authentic redeemable true self while Rock is his corrupt self? Betty calls him Robert, trying to convince herself that he is a good man, not the amoral absent father he really is. Every time Robert makes a new record Betty performs a ritual of opening the plastic, looking through the spindle hole and reciting the song titles before she listens, as if in a trance. The artifice of the musical performance convinces her of Robert’s genuine self, that it consists of something other than cocaine and cheating.

Curiously, Betty is Greenman’s best creation here. She appears to be accidentally realized and sympathetic; surely Robert is supposed to be the star of the novel. Betty is muse and martyr, caring for her child and surrendering her musical talent and ambition for her husband. In these stories, the woman -- boring in that tedious dedication to family and love -- is the anchor and lodestar while the man -- thrilling in artistic creation and self-destruction -- is trickster, magician, millstone, and destroyer.

Ben Greenman’s vague stance on the social issues and characters in his book unnerved this reader who was confused by the book’s thesis and purpose. Is fictionalizing a remembered and contentious history always problematic? Cautionary tales undo themselves. No amount of grotesquerie will prevent destruction. The “swirling sixties sage” is destroyed by its contradictions. To forbid, to caution, to prohibit, to desire? The reader of sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll lit must critique the purpose of its depiction. Can we write about drugs for drugs’ sake without warning or endorsement? This approaches camp.

Please Step Back by Ben Greenman
Melville House
ISBN: 1933633700
320 Pages