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Cleveland.com: New in Paperback

By Vikas Turakhia
Cleveland.com

[Excerpt]

greenberg_love coverLove in Vain

Screenplays do not usually make this list, but Greenberg's writing, "A Vision of Robert Johnson," is a worthy exception.

Originally published in 1983, Greenberg's book dips into the life of Robert Johnson, a Mississippi Delta blues musician and one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Mixing tall-tale myths of Faustian bargains with fact, Greenberg traces the events of Johnson's short life and career -- he died at 27 in 1938.

As Stanley Crouch explains in his introduction to "Love in Vain":

"The work's obvious inclination toward the fantastic and the cultural metaphors of superstition separates it from those largely fictional biographies that are pushed forward as factual." For Crouch, the inclusion of myth into Johnson's story works well, as the book "proposes that we can learn as much from good mythology as from fine documentation -- if the mythology carries or transmits how a world may have felt to those participants, onlookers, and descendants swept up in the lore of time and impatient with flat facts."

Greenberg's vision, Crouch argues, "swells personality, circumstance, and action to the proportion of legend and propels that legend with such audacity and awe, humor and terror, sensuality and dread-laden sorrow that it is obvious how much the writer has been touched and inspired by the broad and mysterious passions of Robert Johnson's life and music."

In The New York Review of Books, Luc Sante effusively praised Greenberg's screenplay for being "much more accessible to the reader than scripts usually are" and for the way Johnson's "ghostly presence" has "been magnificently rendered."

Sante suggests that Greenberg doesn't just offer the screenplay of some "mere biopic. As difficult as it is to depict the life of an artist in movie form without tumbling headlong into ridiculousness, Greenberg has done it by, first of all, not attempting to explain anything. His Johnson is a changeling, flesh-and-blood but mutable and secretive, and he dwells in a world of workaday magic."

Sante writes, "Greenberg not only evokes Johnson in a way that actually enlarges our view of him, he also depicts the blues world of the time, from Mississippi to Texas, in all its variegated splendor and misery. He makes a point of bringing in the most original and singular musicians, from the flamenco-inflected Buddy Boy Hawkins to the sublime gospel hymnist Washington Phillips, and he ranges beyond music to include a great range of the voices of the black South: chanting street vendors and train callers, itinerant preachers, German-speaking black cowboys in Texas."

"Through details and suggestions," Sante concluded, Greenberg "succeeds in showing both how this rich culture fed Johnson, and how Johnson assimilated it and transcended it."

 

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