Arts & Entertainment » Books

Dilettante's delight

Steve Martin's stand-up lit



Q: If John Smith were to write a novel about an obsessive-compulsive 30-something guy who fantasizes about the women passing by his window, leaving his apartment only to negotiate acutely documented trips to the local Rite Aid, would you read it?

A: Hell no.

Q: If Steve Martin were to invite you to his place for liver and onions, would you eat them?

A: You’d have seconds.

And therein lies your dilemma with Steve Martin’s second novel, The Pleasure of My Company. You buy the novel because Steve Martin wrote it. You read it because Steve Martin is very, very funny. You love it and recommend it to your friends because what everyone wants, after all, is a good laugh, and this book delivers lots of them. But when you go home at night and look in the mirror, the truth is this: You wouldn’t have bought this book, you wouldn’t have read this book, and you wouldn’t have loved this book if it wasn’t by Steve Martin.

So does that mean the book is any good, or not? Can you judge a book by its author? If a story is written anonymously in a forest, will it ever become a book at all? These questions crowd your reading of The Pleasure of My Company so obsessively that you begin to sympathize with the book’s neurotic protagonist, Daniel Pecan Cambridge. Sort of.

Age 29–35, depending who’s asking, Daniel spends his days counting ceiling squares, maintaining his apartment’s total electrical wattage at a strict 1125, generating complex relationships with women to whom he speaks several words at best, and plotting convoluted Rite Aid routes that involve only “scooped-out sidewalks,” as he has a phobia of curbs. Daniel recounts these idiosyncrasies in such exhaustive detail that when, soon after devoting four pages to his compulsion to create magic squares a la Albrecht Dürer, he says, “Let me tell you about my mailbox,” you cry out, “No!”

But Daniel Pecan Cambridge keeps on going. Within the confines of his Santa Monica neighborhood, he bungles a couple of encounters with Elizabeth the Realtor. He psychoanalyzes his therapist Clarissa, who comes to his apartment to do the same to him. He feeds Quaalude-spiked wheatgrass juice to his actress neighbor. His pulse quickens at the thought of the Rite Aid clerk—“Oh God, Zandy—so cute! And what a pharmacist!” He riffs on Red Bull and yuppies. Not exactly revolutionary material for the average 30-something first-person narrative—but then again, this narrative’s author isn’t average. He is Steve Martin.

In one of the book’s fresher plotlines, Daniel enters the Tepperton’s Frozen Apple Pie company’s “Why I am the most average American” essay contest—twice—under his name and an alias, and takes both first place and runner-up. When the Tepperton representative arrives at Daniel’s door to present first Daniel, and then his alias, with the good news, Martin creates a laugh-out-loud passage about this earnest man’s double-take. Martin unfolds most of Daniel’s debacles with expert humor. What he doesn’t do, however, is develop and resolve those debacles plausibly enough to sustain a novel.

Humor is an enviable talent—it’s one of our most powerful tools—but it doesn’t explain why rational therapist Clarissa, even in a panicked moment of escape, moves herself and her infant son into her “insane” patient’s apartment for a few days (what about a hotel?). It doesn’t explain why Daniel, who can’t step off a curb, can deliver a speech to a large audience with aplomb. And it certainly doesn’t illuminate how a guy as whacked and maniacally detail-oriented as Daniel can, in the book’s final two pages (read: the Hollywood happy-ending scene), sum up more than a year of his life by getting absolutely everything he’s been looking for all along.

And bottom line: A first-person account of a life lived in isolation includes a lot of thumb-twiddling downtime. “I stayed in my apartment for the next three days,” Daniel bothers to tell us. “The view from my window was quite static that weekend,” he says. “Then it was evening,” he lets us know, too. “For a while everything was the same, except now it was dark.” Then, “The next few days were stagnant.” After the initial run of OCD gags, you start to question what’s so interesting about listening to a troubled guy talk about himself. And then you remember, again: Oh, right, this book is by Steve Martin.

In fairness, though, The Pleasure of My Company is more than funny. In places, it has heart as well. Daniel is a self-declared “quiet heart” with a keen eye for the other “lonely hearts” around him. Author aside, you absorb Daniel’s tender reflections because, like Daniel, you understand feeling lonely and wanting to share your life with someone else. “I began to look at myself,” says Daniel, “…to measure the life that I’d led so far…I did not know what was inside me or how I could redeem what was hidden there. There must be a key or person or thing, or song or poem or belief, or old saw that could access it, but they all seemed so far away.”

If Daniel hung onto these moments with the tenacity with which he fixates on ceiling squares, he’d have a moving story. If Steve Martin pushed beyond our expectations—this is going to be so funny!—he might develop a more fully realized novel. But that raises the next question: If Steve Martin were any less Steve Martinesque, would we still buy Steve Martin’s novel? Answer: Shut up and enjoy the book.

Add a comment