Steve Martin’s Big Year (American Way)

Joyce Carol Oates offered to read Martin’s story about the art world before its release in November, and she sent him a blurb saying he told his story well, comparing it to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. “We gain admission to a world of glittering surfaces to which few have access,” Oates wrote. “It’s the equivalent of any number of ‘art histories’ of the late American twentieth century in the guise of a doomed love affair.”

“The reason I wrote the book,” Martin says, “is because I was trying to find a milieu that I could make believable. The art world from the ‘90s until now was the greatest period of artistic inflation—I don’t just mean money, but of interest, awareness, diversity—in my lifetime.  It’s my last great area of knowledge, other than show business. But I didn’t want to write about show business.”

Martin’s prose doesn’t have the sarcastic edge of  his earlier works like Cruel Shoes or Pure Drivel, but it’s more the mature writer who has taken a step forward from his two novellas (Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company) and five plays (including the critically acclaimed Picasso at the Lapin Agile) to a fully realized novel.

Martin’s ruthless heroine, Lacey, gets a job at Sotheby’s auction house, where she is assigned to “Hades,” the basement where the lesser works of art are stored. “The masterpieces were examined by conservators bearing loupes and black lights, while Lacey toiled downstairs in the antique dust like Sneezy the Dwarf. The subject matter she faced every day was not the apples of Cezanne, but the kitsch of the nineteenth century: monks tippling, waifs selling flowers, cardinals laughing, cows in landscapes, Venetian gondoliers, baby chicks in farmyards, mischievous shoeshine boys, and still lifes painted so badly that objects seemed to levitate over the tabletop on which they were supposed to be gravitationally attached….Through the drudgery downstairs, Lacey was developing an instinct that would burrow inside her and stay forever: a capacity to know a good painting from a bad one.”

Being able to distinguish good from bad might define how Steve Martin has been able to maintain such a high profile in so many creative fields. As a stand up comedian, he appeared at amphitheaters before the largest crowds ever recorded. His very first movie, The Jerk, was named among the American Film Institute’s 100 funniest films; his Born Standing Up memoir was ranked in Time’s Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2007; his first two comedy albums (Let’s Get Small; A Wild and Crazy Guy) won Grammies in 1977 and 1978; his bluegrass banjo playing album (The Crow) won a Grammy in 2010.  He’s won two People’s Choice Awards, one New York Film Critics Circle Award, two National Society of Film Critics Awards, and received five Golden Globe nominations for his acting. He was the 2005 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and a 2007 Kennedy Center Honoree (along with Diana Ross, Martin Scorsese, Brian Wilson, and pianist Leon Fleisher).  He and Alec Baldwin share the record for most times hosting SNL. He’s been called a genius and a national treasure.  And even though he laments in his memoir that he’s “a lousy interview” and “ill suited for fame’s destruction of privacy,” he has still maintained an image of being a nice guy, an artist who has earned by his multi-talents the right to remain shy and quiet and distant if that’s what allows his creative juices to flow. After all, what should you expect when your mother tells a reporter (which Martin noted in his memoir), “He writes his own material, I’m always telling him he needs a new writer,” and your father says of your film debut, “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplin”?  Martin learned long ago that Comedy is Not Pretty. But he also learned that life is what you make it.

Which is what he pointed out to my wife and me when he came as Diane Keaton’s guest to our home. We weren’t keen on the idea of our daughter going off with her boyfriend to Paris for her summer vacation. Keaton thought we should let her go. Steve got the picture and cut to the chase. “What we’re talking about is sex, right?” he asked.

I looked at my wife. She looked at me. We all looked at Steve.

“What?” he said.  “What?”

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