When I was young, oh so many years ago, comedy albums were pretty happening. Bill Cosby was known for his. Richard Pryor and George Carlin had hits. Big hits. But the one that got worn out on our family room phonograph (a device that played record albums, also known as LPs, or “Long-playing”) was Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy, which won the comedian a Grammy in 1979 for Best Comedy Album. An album that featured the silly hit single, “King Tut.”
Steve Martin entertained America on several levels. A modern-day renaissance man of sorts. He sang with his banjo (eventually winning him another Grammy), he juggled (“cat juggling” a personal favorite of my brother’s and mine), he worked a bit of magic, and of course, cracked jokes. Very funny stuff. Not too blue. But wild and crazy for sure.
Because this is my first stab at book commentary, a few words about my reading habits. Relatively speaking, I’m a slow reader. Slow in that I like to sit with a book for a while, weeks for sure, possibly even a month or two. Especially if it is a book I am really enjoying. Sure, occasionally I’ll get caught up in a page turner and rifle through it (Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin comes to mind), but usually the fear of finishing a good novel hangs over me at a certain page point; because, while I will most certainly watch a film I admire several times, I have never read a novel a second time. My wife can. She claims to have read The Lord of the Rings four times. Ok. Not me. The surprise element of turning each page, anxious to learn how the story unfolds is unique to the novel – and once the experience has blossomed, I have found it anti-climactic to attempt a re-read.
I am also not sold on Kindle yet. My books become companions. Especially a good, solid, well-bound first edition hardcover. Carrying the book around town, on business trips and vacations, knowing it’s sitting bedside when I awaken, lounging poolside with it on a sunny day, even dropping it in to the jacuzzi – all good in my world.
My father reviewed books for the Minneapolis Star & Tribune years ago and is still an avid reader. Much more so than I. He has great taste in fiction in particular, so I look no further than his counsel when I’m ready to pick up a new companion. On his last visit to La La Land I asked him if he’d read anything good. Imagine my surprise when he enthusiastically recommended a new novel titled An Object Of Beauty by Steve Martin. Yes, that Steve Martin. The guy with the bunny ears.
I saw the film adaptation of Martin’s first novella, Shopgirl (2005), so I was aware that he was now writing fiction as well as stage plays and screenplays. Shopgirl’s not a bad film, but not all that memorable either.
My father was right – as usual. An Object Of Beauty is a good read, very engaging and light on its feet.
Told in the first person by a young art reviewer (easy to insert Martin’s persona here), An Object Of Beauty follows the career rise of ‘Lacey Yeager,’ an ambitious young art enthusiast who selfishly uses her considerable feminine sexuality, charm, and smarts to navigate her way through the Manhattan art world.
‘Lacey’ flirts and flaunts, breaks hearts and brokers deals, all amidst a changing art landscape that suddenly embraces Pop art (Andy Warhol leading the charge) and celebrates the new, forcing art snobs to not only put aside their infatuations with the masters (Picasso, Renoir, etc), but redefine their definitions and understanding of what makes great art.
Martin never condescends here. It is clear that he is not only a big time art lover and collector himself, but that he is also knowledgeable and insightful in terms of what drives and shapes the global art market. Is it merely subjective, great art? Or is great art undebatable?
‘Patrice Claire,’ the Euro millionaire art collector who falls head over heels for our heroine, lays it out like this to ‘Lacey:’ “You want to know how I think art should be taught to children? Take them to a museum and say ‘This is art, and you can’t do it.'”
It’s a funny read, as you can imagine any book written by Steve Martin would be. But it also dabbles in romance (albeit only somewhat successfully):
“‘Drinks afterwards’ made me think that Tanya was putting her toe in the water with me, and it turned out she was. She was Lacey’s opposite. She didn’t leap in ablaze. She was a tortoise to Lacey’s hare, perhaps not as effective, but her goals were less grand than Lacey’s, and a modest presence can eventually catch the eye in a powerful way.”
Martin’s strength, however, is the seamless way he relentlessly informs the reader about the subtleties of art appreciation and the market value attached. Because he knows the art world so well, he has enough credibility to poke fun at it:
“‘In dialogue’ was a new phrase that art writers could no longer live without. It meant that hanging two works next to or opposite each other produced a third thing, a dialogue, and that we were now all the better for it.” And then “It also hilariously implied that when the room was empty of viewers, the two works were still chatting.”
He is also bold enough to let the all too real life 9-11 catastrophe crash into the narrative.
I have lamented the transformation of Steve Martin, now 65, over the past decade. Gone is the goofball actor who cut loose with reckless abandon in films like The Jerk (1979), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), The Man With Two Brains (1983), All of Me (1984), and The Three Amigos (1986). With Parenthood (1989), L.A. Story (1991), and The Spanish Prisoner (1997), he took on a more polished persona. Now, it seems, his work on screen bares no resemblance to anything remotely wild or crazy.
But I never would have guessed that Steve Martin the author would capture my imagination as much as was the case with An Object Of Beauty. A good read for sure.