Several years ago, Steve Martin wrote a brief, humorous piece for The New Yorker titled "Writing is Easy!" I read it aloud to a group of writers; we chortled and groaned over his opening: "Writing is the most easy, pain-free and happy way to pass the time of all the arts."
As everyone knows, writing is the most tortured of all the arts, practiced alone and frequently with only a bottle, a handful of pills and a stack of rejection letters for companionship.
Yet perhaps not. Steve Martin navigates an interesting and varied creative field -- making a film here, writing a play or novel there, adding to his art collection or hosting discussions and award programs -- and somehow makes it all appear as effortless as he revealed in his elegant little essay. "I just look deep into the heart of the rose," he wrote, "read its story, and then write it down."
Is that all there is to it? For Martin, maybe. He has followed his charming debut novel, "Shopgirl," with an equally diverting read, "The Pleasure of My Company." This is not the stuff of Nobel Prize winners, but if friends ask me to recommend a good book, this is what I would suggest. Martin's work is literate, full of engaging characters who surprise a reader in amusing ways. In addition, he has lightened up current fiction, much in the way Willa Cather did in protest of three-volume 19th century novels, which she considered "overfurnished." Unlike some current 5-pound-doorstop novels, Martin does not go on to the point of tedium. He rather leaves one wishing for more -- a nice bonus.
In this latest work, Martin introduces Daniel Pecan Cambridge, a sort of geek in his early 30s who lives in Santa Monica, Calif. Daniel has more or less barricaded himself into a restricted life of rigid behavior patterns. He is the most obsessive-compulsive individual one could meet. It takes him an hour to walk to the local Rite-Aid, because he cannot manage to step off curbs and must cross streets at opposing driveways. Daniel's "favorite feeling is symmetry," and he is only comfortable when his corners are square and defined and he can identify safe borders.
Yet he is interested in life in oblique ways. Peering down on the busy, lively street from his apartment window, he concocts an imaginary romance with a real estate agent and entertains himself with endless small dramas. Do I "think too much?" he asks himself.
It appears so. His elaborate fantasy life works perfectly, as long as he stays quiet and alone. Any real interaction with other human beings throws him into a state of panic, with funny and endearing results. One hilarious episode has him delivering a speech for winning a silly contest to be the most average person. Riding to the ceremony, he tries to keep his pants from wrinkling and his skin from sweating. I do not think I laughed so much since reading Kingsley Amis'"Lucky Jim" in college.
Daniel often drops little hints to the reader that he is insane. But a discerning reader knows better. The roots of Daniel's troubles are buried in his past, and he is straining to throw off his phobias.
Lucky for Daniel, Martin plants a couple of helpful healers in his way. Clarissa is a young student-therapist whose son Teddy bonds with Daniel. The plotline of this story is rather fragile, so disclosing much of it would ruin the intrigue of seeing it unfold. It is enough to say that Daniel begins to find ways to extend his (personally imposed) cell walls. His talent at creating mathematical "magic squares" blossoms into an application that works for his own "quiet heart." Martin gently tugs his hero along unfamiliar paths until Daniel discovers how to replace his enduring anxieties with others that he can manage.
Unfortunately, Martin employs a few creaky techniques to bring his tale of Daniel to a happy ending. There is a journey, of course, and an unexpected inheritance. An almost too-perfect girl enters the scene at just the right moment. But these are nitpicks. I think life is like that sometimes -- in any event, I want it to be.
Martin's fictions are full of delightful observations and touching human insights. His work reminds me of Fred Astaire's dancing in its agility and carefree style in performance that comes from serious professionalism and hard work. He does the heavy lifting in order to give his audience enjoyment.
Several years ago, Jack Nicholson won an Academy Award for portraying an obsessive-compulsive character in "As Good As It Gets." I always considered that film to be vastly overrated and inauthentic. I never believed in Nicholson's mannered behaviors, which were played broadly for comic effect. Martin has managed to create a character who has you pulling for him and who works out his destiny in ways that, while they may seem fortuitous, ring true.
Whether intended or not, the title of Martin's book is a double entendre. It's impossible not to take pleasure in the company of the protagonist or the author. I think I'm in love!