Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Great Steve Martin

I’ve always liked Steve Martin a lot, maybe loved him, not exactly putting me in a minority. Remember when he started? Everyone had a beard and was scruffy, but Martin looked like a regular button down guy with prematurely gray hair. “Why do you dress like that?” he was asked. “To be different,” he said, truthfully, with his trademark subtle irony, since of course the first scruffy guys wanted to be different, and then everyone else figured that was the way to do it. He was great, as everyone knew, that wild and crazy guy. My special favorite, the Christmas wishes monologue: (

I had read some of this New Yorker articles. He could write! Then I read his autobiographical Born Standing Up. Great writing -- direct, vivid, truthful, excellent writing. The picture of him growing up seemed so authentic. He had worked so hard starting at the bottom. I particularly liked how he was different from me, since I was on the track of Ivy League, med school, etc., not just trying something you liked with no guarantee at all. Then I remember especially his recounting his triumphant one-man tour when every event was completely sold out. He trooped people out the door all together as part of the act at one point, amazingly. Then one day, he saw it. Way, way in the back of the balcony, there was an empty seat. He wondered if it would be filled a little later, but no, there was an empty seat. So I knew it was coming to an end, he said. His writing is so intimate that I felt I was his friend. That’s hard to do.

So, I just read his new novel, An Object of Beauty, which I think is just great. I’m prejudiced by loving him, but still, I think the book is great. Surprisingly to me, it reminds me of Richard Ford’s Independence Day, in which Ford’s protagonist, Frank Bascombe, is doing real estate, and the picture of the real estate business makes you understand what it’s like to be in that world. Ford said he hung around with real estate people a lot, just found himself doing it, before he wrote the book.

That’s what Steve does for the art-collecting world in New York. As an art collector himself he clearly knows the people and the business. As with the real estate business after reading Independence Day, I think I know a little something about the art-collecting world now, too.

I like the story, featuring Lucy Yeager, a very pretty girl who becomes upwardly mobile first at Sotheby’s, then with her own gallery, and who is not really likable at all. I read this the same week we saw The Social Network, which we liked, and which doesn’t have many if any likable characters at all. I found shades of sympathy with most of An Object of Beauty’s characters, but still, there was something in common with Social Network. Lust pervades both, money and sex, and at least in the book, beauty. The narrator, a guy who is a friend of Lacey’s and who becomes an art writer, is sympathetic. Some are more and some less sympathetic, and all are real, at least those in the constant trade winds of the art world. They either lust after art, or they are in the business of servicing those who have that lust. You will have noticed that the title is a double entendre, some lusting after art, some after Lacey, many after both. And maybe that’s almost the same thing.

What’s it like to be lusted after all your life, to be an object of beauty? That’s Lacey. She knows she is lusted after by most men she meets – that’s us, men! – so she uses it, and has contempt for those who continue to be used by it. Boy, does she use it. When she rides her bike with a halter top and shorts, she listens behind her for the metal clank of bikes crashing as, she imagines, boys and men are looking at her. I guess this is what many beautiful and sexy women deal with – it’s probably hard to do, to figure out who loves you and who is simply lusting for you. Most people probably feel, as with great wealth, I know there are problems, but I wouldn’t mind that challenge. At the end she has a long affair with an FBI agent, the only one she knows below her station, who she always calls “Agent,” and who she loves because he never tells her he loves her.

It’s interesting that Steve has this agent look at a painting he likes – his line is not art appreciation but following art theft, so if he likes something it’s from a very unprofessional view – and he tells Lacey it might be symbolic, explains what symbolic is (thank you, says Lacey), and then says the sea is reality, the sky is the dream, and art is trying to connect one to the other. Sounds like Steve to me.

Steve writes really good sentences. He writes with structure. We hear it referred to that Lacey came into money, and we think, she did? Did I miss exactly how that happened? But it pops up later. The story doesn’t bog down for a minute, and I like his short chapters. I didn’t want the book to end, but still, when I would look ahead and see that it was only a couple of pages, especially since I’m having some trouble with my eyes, it would be a relief. Steve might have started as a showman, but he is a writer, in every good sense of the word. He is a very good writer, and I’m so glad he is.

All of which reminded me of my brush with the art world. It was 1970 and I was in graduate school at Berkeley, my first wife Mary Jane was an undergrad at Mills College, and we lived at the corner of Arch and Hilgard, just a few blocks walk for me to school. She brought home a fellow student one day who lived just a block up the hill from us, a young lady who dressed in a peasant-type dress, I guess it was, and whose chest was very alluring. I was 29 years old and had as much testosterone as most guys that age, probably at the higher end of normal. Truthfully, I just couldn’t get over her chest just below the scoop neckline as we stood there. She was recently married to a guy who I met probably a few days later, it’s hard to remember the details, but I do remember it was hard to think of anything beyond this young woman’s chest, very hard. Anyway, I guess she and her young husband wanted to be friends. He was a nice enough guy on the small side. He was called Dicken, which in German meant little Dick, because he was junior to his father, whose name was Richard.

So, as part of getting to know each other, they said that Dicken’s father was an artist and did I want to meet him and see his studio? I pictured walking up to his house nearby, looking at the studio, who knows what boring stuff I would be faced with. So I demurred, we never became friends with this young couple, life went on, I never met the father. Face it, I was distracted.

And so it was that I never met Richard Diebencorn.

I am such an asshole.

Budd Shenkin