Ben Greenman

My Baby just wrote me a letter.

Continuing a theme: on letter writing: I’ve written and mailed two handwritten cards in the last few days, and I’ve been a magnet, recently, for books about letters. One is a book that came out a couple of years ago, Other People’s Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See, edited by Bill Shapiro. The other was Ben Greenman’s forthcoming collection of short stories, What He’s Poised to Do.

Bill Shapiro’s book appeared before me, in perfect condition, at a tag sale. I’m not sure it had ever been read. It had almost certainly been given as a romantic gift to someone (the book lacked an inscription, so I can’t prove that; but experience as a bookseller tells me the odds are good). The book looked unread. Clearly the owner had decided, “All right: enough’s enough, I don’t need this anymore.” And the book was banished to the church tag sale donation pile, along with old children’s books, dogeared and chewed up, and bad cookbooks, bought with good intentions but never used.

I bought it because its appearance was, I felt, a Sign. A few days previous to this, an old friend of mine -- someone with whom I engaged in extensive written correspondence for years and years (we now communicate, sporadically, via email) sent me a copy of Ben Greenman’s forthcoming collection of short stories. My friend clearly thought, “Hm, stories about letters. Who would want to read this? Oh: Eva.” I’m not sure what this says about me, but I’ll take it. The book was sent, received, and read pretty much in the same little windows of time in which I acquired and read the Bill Shapiro book, and it’s been an interesting little experiment, continuing what seems to be an ongoing concern of mine: what it means to write letters to anyone these days.

I don’t have any hard and fast proclamations on the subject but one thing is clear to me: people can say all they want that letter writing is dead, but it clearly is not.

Shapiro’s book is fascinating in that voyeuristic way you’d expect. It’s fun to leaf through -- some of the letters are just beautiful to behold, some of them are really works of comic genius, and some of them are gut-wrenchingly sad; you remember every stage of your own roller-coaster ride through romantic life as you go through the book -- but it’s not a book I lingered over.

Greenman’s book, on the other hand, is more of a challenge. The book isn’t a collection of letters; it’s a book wherein letters are central characters in their own right. The fourteen stories in What He’s Poised to Do are set in different places and different times. Each story starts with its title and a postmark serving as a dateline (“Seventeen Different Ways to Get a Load of That,” Lunar City, 1989; “Against Samantha,” New York City, 1928), which is a nice touch.

I’m afraid that, the older I get, the less good I am with fiction. I read it less and less, and I have a harder time just enjoying it. So I balked, a little, but I found Greenman’s collection houses really delicately good pieces. This will not surprise Greenman’s fans. He is a nimble and clever writer. His essays are always a pleasure to read; I now would actually like to go take a look at the novel he recently published, Please Step Back.

In What He’s Poised to Do, there were several stories that left me uninterested, unintrigued, completely, in what the characters had to say. But then, others crawled into my head and wouldn’t leave. Greenman’s collection is noteworthy. To elaborate on that much would, I feel, crush the stories -- they’re kind of like butterflies that way -- but the last story in the book, “Her Hand,” really struck me particularly. I read it once and immediately read it again, though it was hardly heartwarming. It’s a four page long quiet sigh of resignation.

The personally-directed written word -- letter, postcard, email -- written to be read by one person and one person only, is alive and well. Even if reading it doesn’t always make you happy. I’m going to go listen to the Bay City Rollers’ “Rock and Roll Love Letter,” followed by the Box Top’s “The Letter,” and see if I can cheer myself up.

Please Step Back

A new novel by Ben Greenman, published by Melville House

Rock-and-roll fiction tends to take easy outs, playing up the obvious excesses of the lifestyle so that we get big splashy works resembling tell-all accounts like Stephen Davis’ Hammer of the Gods or Peter Brown and Stephen Gaines’ The Love You Make. Groupies queue up, bottles are smashed, TVs are tossed, and it’s Satyricon, 1960s-style.

though, has hit upon something far more dexterous with Please Step Back, which features a protagonist—the protean Rock Foxx—who has fused rock’s free-styling id-component with a poet’s soul. The two halves wear away at each other, and Foxx’s saga becomes less a march on the charts than a quiet, personal quest for lucidity—in his marriage, his music, his past, and his quotidian thoughts as he tries to decode everything from the motives of bandmates to the very source of songs.

He’s a funkster, set in the black musical culture of the iconic genre-blenders, musicians like James Brown, Sly Stone, and post-In a Silent Way Miles Davis. In short, a hoodoo artist. Greenman’s prose renders Foxx the personification of a walking, scamming, ever-playing record collection, a patois of rhyming couplets and jerking syncopations. There’s a coming-of-age quality to the novel—Foxx does indeed take the journey from unknown to cover-boy—but this is a frail heroism, if it’s heroism at all. Drama originates not in Foxx’s rock and roll conquests, but rather from his marriage, a union that Greenman dissects with the careful, shot-by-shot imagery—and context setting—of a film.

Bands are roiled with creative difference, people get on the junk, and opportunities are missed (Foxx’s band ditches Woodstock—a clever fictional tweak of history), but it’s the dissolution of relationships and what that reveals about one’s own failings that’ll do you in. Foxx’s music starts to navigate away from soul and funk over the course of the book, and soon it’s loaded up with the blues, albeit a rocking, Fillmore-friendly blues. Lyrics and references tap the back catalogues of Little Walter, Memphis Minnie, and Slim Harpo. Identities—and archetypes—blur, and meaning begins to emanate from states of relative confusion, as if a song had emerged from what had been a noodling, band practice jam. Like when Foxx quotes Shakespeare to his wife:

“You ever heard of him? Tall cat, good with a knife. I think he’s from Denver.”

“You’re a strange person,” she said.

“Please,” he said. “Mercurial.”

And that he is. He’s also almost Macbethian by the end; everything’s blown up on him, and now the forest is marching on the castle. It’s at this point that Greenman introduces an inspector tandem that could have strayed from a novel, with absurdity now pressed into service to help Foxx find his meaning. His explorations—and attempted extrapolations—become ritualistic, like an endgame that cycles over and over again, or a series of encores played to an empty room.

Colin Fleming writes for Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Criterion, and many other publications. His fiction appears in Boulevard, The Hopkins Review, TriQuarterly, and The Republic of Letters.