(FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, 2009)
John Wray (Canaan’s Tongue) delivers another fast-paced novel which takes us through the New York City subway system, tracking a schizophrenic sixteen-year-old boy who, like many of the city’s paranoid residents, believes he has been made privy to information about a pending apocalypse. Will Heller—aka Lowboy—views himself as a superhero of sorts, out to save the world from certain destruction by…losing his virginity. Lowboy turns himself loose on the city, encountering a range of colorful characters on his quest for manhood and the prevention of global annihilation.
Wray’s character development is rich for such a short novel; he makes it easy to feel as if one knows the protagonist, and therefore can understand and accept his flaws. Wray’s knowledge of the mental state of Lowboy—his schizophrenic condition, and the consequences of going off his meds—seems well-researched, and his vivid descriptions of the urban labyrinth—its subways and its sensations—add substance to an otherwise mediocre novel. The final tidbit revealed about Violet (Will’s mother) is somewhat bland, though it seems to have been intended as a shocking twist.
Is this a groundbreaking, earth-shattering, seminal work about yet another New Yorker’s apocalyptic visions and his journey to save the world? Or is it just a recounting of an adolescent paranoid-schizophrenic’s quest to lose his virginity? This reviewer isn’t of two minds about it. —TATIAANA L. LAINE
The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience
Was Franklin Delano Roosevelt the sole rescuer of Depression-era America? Or was he just another C student with leadership acumen and a brilliant woman to feed him revolutionary ideas and then make them happen? No, I’m not talking about Eleanor. Kirstin Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal credits Frances Perkins, FDR’s all-but-forgotten Secretary of Labor, as the mastermind behind unemployment compensation, minimum wage and child labor laws, the forty-hour work week, Social Security, and, almost, national health insurance. She was the first woman to hold the office, the first woman to serve in a cabinet position, and one of the few women tight with Roosevelt who was able to resist his charm and sexual blandishments.
Radicalized in her early twenties as she watched dozens of young women plunge to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Perkins, a social worker, elbowed her way into FDR’s inner circle while he was governor of New York and stuck by him for thirty years as his friend, confidant and unrelenting leftist nudge. By frumping down her intellect, wit and “luminous” brown eyes, she managed to outperform and outlast dozens of male New Dealers while patiently caring and providing for a mentally ill husband and an emotionally dependent daughter. Even impeachment proceedings brought on by her defense of dockworker organizer Harry Bridges against charges he was a communist (which he was) couldn’t bring her down.
When Harry Truman showed her the door after FDR’s death, Perkins moved on to new projects, leaving undeserving male New Dealers behind to take credit for her accomplishments. Downey, a former Washington Post reporter, sets the record straight in straightforward prose and with “a wit” (as her promo copy claims) “…that echo’s Frances Perkins’ own.” Late in her life, Perkins championed the notion that a C student with terrific leadership skills and a good personality often makes a greater mark on the world. Quoth Perkins, “Franklin Roosevelt would never be admitted to a first-class college today.”—RAY ABERNATHY
Please Step Back
(MELVILLE HOUSE, 2009)
Ben Greenman’s new novel Please Step Back is an engaging oddity, a period piece with no pretensions to nostalgia, a rock n’ roll fable with neither gleeful endorsement or disavowal of music-spurred hedonism, and a cultural history distilled without a whiff of pedantry or show-off gimmickry. As a chronicle of a band forming and finding fame, crashing and burning, and then finally just burning out, it does not add more to what we all know—that most bands are like self-aggrandizing empires which rise and fall and attempt to shore up their ruins. Greenman succeeds, however, in lending an ascetic poignancy to this tale, embroidering its straightforward narrative with a detailed vision of the sixties, revealing that—for that generation—concepts like freedom and pursuits like music could easily lead from panorama to panopticon. For this reason, Greenman’s riff on the old showbiz tragic trajectory strikes the right chords.
Following the career of a Black Bostonian who heads to San Francisco to seek his musical fortunes as summers of love become shaded by drugs, paranoia, assassinations, race riots, and Vietnam, Please Step Back constructs a sociological and psychic survey of its characters and their backdrop, realistically approaching their artistic and social behavior with punchy prose and sharply drawn scenarios. A minor drawback to this type of storytelling which so energetically embeds itself in its historical milieu is descriptive congestion. With all that zing and zeitgeist comes the need to infuse a sense of totality as an affirmation of authenticity. Thus, there are references to almost every salient and subtle occurrence of the late 1960s and the effect sometimes comes close to overkill.
Nonetheless, Please Step Back overwhelmingly succeeds in one of the most overripe of cinematic and literary genres—the rock n’ roll docudrama—and never succumbs to the bombast and cliché which usually typify the form. If you want the more normalizing fallen-star narrative, rent Eddie and the Cruisers or watch a re-run of VH1’s Behind the Music series. If you want a tender and evocative story which reveals the affirmations and discontents of 1960s America, then step right up and do not step back: Ben Greenman’s novel is as classic as the music scene he charts so movingly. —Jon Curley