The mystery of Steve Martin is that he can express intimate knowledge of the ways of the kitten while retaining machismo cred; eclipse that grumpy Mike Davis to write the published portrait of Los Angeles this year; dissect linguistics with the weight of Wittgenstein and the delicacy of a young Mel Torme--all the while maintaining such consistently pretty hair.
In Martin's book of essays, most of which first appeared in The New Yorker, he mines the yuks inherent in the rendezvous of high and low. In "The Nature of Matter and Its Antecedents" he deftly imagines movie stars moonlighting asscientists: "Kurt and Goldie discussed their catalogingof 'everydamngrasshopper in Colorado.'." In "Yes, in My Own Backyard," he takes the silliestof notions--attributing the birdbath he bought at a swap meet in Glendale toRenaissance master Raphael--and twists it into a delirious critique ofhistory, provenance, scholarship, and lawn furniture. And though the joke is in the concept (revered Italian genius dallying in the turf of Smith & Hawken), there's a hint of truth in it. Who can't imagine a replica of The Martin Birdbath in the L.A. County Museum gift shop, propping up a few of those Caillebotte umbrellas?
As with all great wits,there is a subtext of how-sad-the-world. Thebravura of "Side Effects," a parody of medicinal warning labels, is sustained not by cheeky lines like "While taking this drug, you might want to wear something lucky," but by a dark-hearted sucker punch like "You may feel a powerful sense of impending doom; this is because you are about to die." "You are about to die" is, of course, pretty much the point of all great literature, and Martin is a real writer to say so. Anyone who thinks he's just an actor who can type should check out his "Writing Is Easy!," a dead-on parable of the loner lunacy that is the literary life. When I came acrossthe line "Writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol," I laughed so hard I spit bourbon all over my laptop.
By Steve Martin
Hyperion, 104pp., $19.95
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