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On Steve Martin

Steve MartinLike several other men I have loved, Steve Martin irritated the crap out of me when we first met. Not that we actually met, of course, but when I was a young camper in the early 80s and he was a wild-and-crazy guy with an arrow through his head, I thought he was the most obnoxious, most absurd, and least likable performer I could spend my precious $5 to see at the local multiplex. His out-there energy and ploys for attention just did not mesh with my twelve years of innocence and love of ballet, unicorns and the Muppets. I dismissed him as gimmicky. I was not interested in his comedy or his films. A few years later, I reluctantly saw Roxanne and eagerly saw Little Shop of Horrors. Something started to stir.

Thirty years later, I love the man. Oh, we have our differences, and our one-sided relationship is marked with the occasional understanding that helps keep us together (namely, that I no longer read his Twitter feed), but for the most part I now find Mr. Martin very curious, endearing and admirable.

The Spanish PrisonerMy opinion changed when I saw The Spanish Prisoner. Martin plays an elegant businessman who may or may not be what he seems. His understated performance made me reconsider my previous impressions.

I’m fickle. Or rather, I don’t have a television and I do have a small child, which means that I rarely see movies. Mr. Apparently introduced me to some of Mr. Martin’s older works, to which I did not respond favorably, and I’ll confess I have not seen his most recent films, although I’d like to. In the 90s I was given an audio copy of Cruel Shoes that I wore out.

What I can speak to, however, is his writing and his musical skill. I’ve read all three of Martin’s novels/novellas as well as his autobiography, and they are written in utterly compelling voices. The fictional plots all take wildly unexpected and occasionally nonsensical turns, and the last ten pages of Shopgirl angered me in a way that no other book has pissed me off. But would I have gotten so furious if I didn’t care? I have read each of his books in one or two sittings; I simply can’t put them down.

“My mind has always been independent of my plans for it.”
- from The Pleasure of My Company

One suspects in reading his books that he must know at least something about the obsessions of his characters to write so convincingly. His thorough knowledge of the art world led to his latest work of fiction, An Object of Beauty. It’s a delicious read. The Pleasure of My Company makes for a fascinating evening. Neither left me with the deep satisfaction of having read great literature, but both left me wanting much, much more and, upon waking the next day, offered that vague sense of unease that comes with missing fictional characters one has just gotten to know. I didn’t particularly like Lacey Yager, but I certainly wanted to know what happened to her next.

Characters! Perhaps that’s the connection here. The man is brilliant with characters.

Most people know that Martin is a master banjo player. If you haven’t heard him play, listen to The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo.

His web site is brilliant. His Twitter feed is so fervently absurd that I had to stop following him. His autobiography is replete with anecdotes and wisdom that made me like him even more.

The more I noodle on the topic, the more I realize that my love for Steve Martin is based neither on his prolific output, nor even necessarily on his talent, for I think his books need a heavier-handed editor and his script choices are hit or miss (and perhaps chosen with an eye towards commercial success, which is, of course, his prerogative). I’m not always crazy about his pieces in The New Yorker, but it was a class act when he read one of them several years ago in a live revue, wearing a perfectly tailored suit when Andy Borowitz could barely be bothered to tuck in his shirt. But I love his characters and his concepts, and how he dives into new endeavors with confidence and enthusiasm.

“Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naïveté, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.”
- from Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life

Why do I adore Steve Martin? Because he’s a renaissance man, and he’s not afraid to fail. And he wears sharp suits.