‘The Pleasure of my Company’ by Steve Martin

Daniel Pecan Cambridge lives in a prison of disorder. His life in Santa Monica is a highly structured life in which he must find a way to the Rite Aid that doesn’t involve stepping off a curb. He is mentally unable to hold a job like the one he once had at Hewlitt Packard. He is unable to use public transportation unless he can draw lines between passengers based upon the plaids and stripes they are wearing. He prioritizes his mail into three piles, savoring letters from his grandmother in Texas like they are the middle part of an Oreo.

When Steve Martin’s novella The Pleasure of My Company opens, Daniel has been cleared of murder charges and has developed a friendship with his neighbor Philipa, an actress who doesn’t know he is slipping her Qualudes. He is visited regularly by an interning psychology student named Clarissa, whom he lies to about his life. He has it bad for Elizabeth, the Real Estate agent who is trying to fill some apartments down the street.

A reader might go through these stages in the early parts of Martin’s second whack at fiction: 1) Ha! That Steve Martin. This is hilarious! 2) Oh my. Should I be laughing at a character who has such a debilitating case of OCD and a touch of Asperger Syndrome? 3) Oh my aching heart!

This list of funny compulsions is all fun and games until Daniel gets a letter from his grandmother who lives in Texas, his benefactor — whom he prefers when she isn’t sending him checks, as much as he needs the checks. Then everything kind of shifts when you realize he isn’t pure, neurotic comedy. He’s a being with feelings who is trapped by things like curbs, the wattage of light bulbs, and expressing emotions.

“The irony is that the one person who gives me money is the one person I wish I could hand the check back to and say no, only joy can pass between you and me. I found it difficult to write back. But I did, stingy with loving words because they didn’t come out of me easily. I hoped she could read between the lines.”

Daniel’s life changes when he is invited by Philipa’s boyfriend Brian to go for a run and he realizes that by following Brian he can soar over curbs, and when he enters an essay contest in search of the most average American. And when he starts to learn more about Clarissa and the complexity of her life with child and hostile ex.

This is a pleasant little story. Nice, funny, easy. And it wraps up tightly like a burrito.

It has taken reading three books by Steve Martin to understand that he is never ever going to do anything super terrible to his characters. This is both frustrating and also alleviates a ton of the stress of reading and worrying about characters. Children won’t die left in the hands of a man who has debilitating street-crossing habits. A character who has fallen in love with his therapist will not do anything super embarrassing to proclaim his feelings. Even the obsessive compulsive gets a slight break when he takes up with a girlfriend who categorizes his ticks into three headings: Acceptable, unacceptable, and hilarious. As though requited love can cure him of OCD and Asperger Syndrome.

Steve Martin’s novels aren’t going to break your heart or make your pulse race. They are simple stories with likable characters whose stories end nicely without shrapnel or gritty nails or paint splatters or messy hair or the need for hand sanitizer.

This review was originally published May 16, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘An Object of Beauty’ by Steve Martin

The weirdest thing about reading a novel by Steve Martin is hearing his Steve Martin voice narrating. It’s that kind of friend’s smart dad voice, a guy with his own library and couture reading glasses who can also bust out a head band that makes it look like he was shot through the skull with an arrow. That kind of voice. And it is not an unpleasant way to spend nearly 300 pages.

An Object of Beauty is a kind of simple, smoothly written easy reader, the story of Lacey, a sassy young go-getter in the New York City art scene starting in the 1990s — as told by her somewhat mysterious arts writer friend Daniel. There was a brief something between them that eased into a friendship. He starts her story with Lacey stuck in his craw, unable to write anything else until he writes about this irreverent, smart, enigma.

Lacey starts in the basement of Sotheby’s, learning about paintings and the value of paintings, and the business of marrying collectors with these paintings. She whizzes off to a gallery, where she learns more, travels further, flashes more winning smiles. Then she opens her own space in Chelsea just in time to watch people’s art budget’s become absorbed by the tug of necessities. There are men, always men, and there are episodes. But mostly she breezes through the book, a gust of fresh air, a witty side comment, before easing herself into a position to have sex beneath a Matisse.

As much as this story is about Lacey, it is also an art history lesson about the state of the scene during two decades. A period that spans multi-million dollar deals, to newbie artists seeing similar dollar signs as the masters, to galleries with tumbleweeds blowing through them at an opening exhibition. Martin curates this, including color photographs of real-live pieces of art from real-live collections. In some ways it was like Steve Martin was strumming away at his banjo and decided to write a book that incorporated a bunch of art and the story of art existing in a certain time period, and then invented a girl to give it legs.

And to that end, there isn’t a ton of meat here. The story has few peaks and valleys and there are times that would be total danger ranger set ups in other novels. Lacey, with a super expensive art delivery, makes a detour to visit some nearby museums. Most heroines would experience a catastrophe. Losing the painting, or spilling ketchup on it. Lacey has one pulse-increasing moment that quickly dissipates.This is standard fare throughout the story. But it’s kind of nice and the story is pleasant with touches of good humor, usually coming out of Lacey’s mouth.

True story: Last week, before I started reading this book, I had a dream that I met Steve Martin. I touched his arm and said “I really like your book,” then I fumbled. I realized he had more than one, and I couldn’t remember the names of any of them. Then finally I said “Shop Girl. … The book, not the movie. … Well, I liked the movie, too.” And he was nice and all, but just smiled and walked away and I made a vow in that dream to get thee to a book store and read his new book so I would never be in such an embarrassing situation ever again ever.

This review was posted at Minnesota Reads on January 24, 2011.