Please Step Back

By BEN GREENMAN

Robert Franklin, the fictional character in New Yorker editor Ben Greenman’s fourth novel — about a young man who christens himself Rock Foxx and goes on to lead a mixed-race-and-gender funk-rock band in the ’60s and ’70s — was born when Greenman tried his hand at writing a biography of the leader of the race-and-gender-mixing funk-rock band Sly and the Family Stone. But fiction proved more illuminating than fact, and Greenman’s treatment of a band that produces music “sweeter than the Beatles and more filling than Dylan” becomes all the more filling when he makes it his own. The young Robert leaves his chilly Boston home, with only a note for his mama, to test his moves in California. He puts a Nordic girl on bass, a black girl on vocals, and Italian guy on guitar in an era when one can still make the argument on national television that allowing members of the Negro Leagues into the baseball Hall of Fame is like putting “animals next to people.” They listen to the Velvet Underground, open for the Stones and decline to play Woodstock, due to Robert’s fear of flying. The verses follow a well-worn groove: His first hit comes before he’s even figured out how to be a proper rock star. He achieves, then squanders fame, fortune, and the love of a good woman. But the brilliance of this novel is in its riffs: This is a writer who sees rain “coming down like there was a jailbreak in the clouds” and can write: “He had the whole world in his hands. If he dropped it, would it bounce?” One is amply rewarded for listening all the way through to the end.