There’s a thumping, pulsating bass line suffusing the language of Ben Greenman’s newest novel, Please Step Back, a snaky rhythm that traces Rock Foxx’s rise to stardom and a slow dirge following his inevitable fall from grace. Glittery and disco-flashy, but never indulgent, Greenman’s novel is so fluid that one probably won’t pick up on the key changes–he moves from major to minor as effortlessly as Foxx writes his band’s socially-conscious rock anthems.
Robert Franklin–stage name Rock Foxx–is egotistical, maniacal, and undeniably talented. Yet, from the book’s opening fade-in, there’s an echo of tragedy: Robert, at age eleven, sees his cousin Dre hit and killed by a car, a pointless and childish mistake that sets the tone for the rest of the novel:
“Eyes red with wine, teeth white with milk,” Foxx said. He stood and crossed the grass toward Lucas, thinking strangely of Dre. Where was he now, after years beneath the earth? Where was the man he would’ve become? When Foxx reached the bench, Lucas was not there. “Hey,” Foxx called out. “Brother, where you gone?” No answer. “Tell me where,” he said, “you black Jesus. Tell me where, Lucas 1:1. Tell me where, you pious motherfucker. You won’t join my band? You too good? Or are you just afraid you’re nothing?”
There’s wit and soul here, and most of it is Foxx’s, but we’re seeing it through a pair of his dark, ever-present sunglasses. Foxx has a quick, sharp tongue, but Greenman wisely avoids making him a jive-talking caricature. Please Step Back centers on America’s civil rights movement, and Foxx’s lyrics reflect the social upheaval taking place, but music makes up the book’s core. Early in his career, when being interviewed by a music journalist, Foxx acknowledges the pedestal on which he’s been placed, but makes it clear where his–and the novel’s–focus really is:
“What do you think of race relations in this country?”
“Oh, man,” he said. “I’m tired of playing spokesman. I just run this band.”
“So are you apolitical?”
“Ain’t no way, Renee. Black man goes down the street, he’s political. That’s the skin he’s in. But it’s more like I am where I am. I’m not delivering an address. Notes, not keynotes. Got it?”
Though we witness ’60s and ’70s popular culture, Please Step Back never feels dated. We can imagine the bell-bottom jeans and afros, the big-collared shirts and platform shoes, but Greenman makes it all seem contemporary. Foxx’s pop culture isn’t much different from our own. Stardom is still fleeting. Sordid tales of hard drug use and anonymous sex are still common for most rock stars. Americans still hunger for the latest trend. And if you haven’t made a record in years, you’re quickly forgotten–as Foxx realizes towards the novel’s end: “Past and the future? Who died and made Hughes king? And then he remembers: He did.”
Foxx is worshiped by millions of fans, but he never loses his humanity. He’s a flawed character, and as the story progresses, he encounters problems that no amount of drugs, sex, or money will solve: a son he doesn’t want to raise, a failing marriage, and a dry creative well. His stock value tumbles and he’s desperate for another hit record, but Greenman never shows him, or us, any pity: “’Life, death,’ he said. ‘What’s the difference?’” Like the best Shakespearean tragedy, Foxx’s problems stem not from his band or his record label’s executives, but from his own actions and conceit. He makes mistakes, but we still cheer him on.
Yet it’s because of his humanity that we still want to live through him–singing his songs, snorting his cocaine, sleeping with his groupies. We catch glimpses of real rock stars: Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Mick Jagger. But Foxx eclipses them all, and Greenman never has to explain his allure. Like his fictional front man, Greenman is confident, navigating his novel with purpose and ease. Please Step Back ends on a quiet, triumphant note, with Foxx, as always, having the final word: “It wasn’t that he got in her head; it was that he had never gotten out.”