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A nebbish in search of true love

The Pleasure of My Company, A Novel; Steve Martin Hyperion: 166 pp., $19.95

October 26, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

A friend who used to be an exotic dancer told me this story: On one of her nights off, she and a fellow dancer put on their best clothes -- these were working-class women -- and went to one of Marina del Rey's spiffiest waterfront restaurants. They sat at the bar and nursed their expensive drinks and shot the breeze with a well-dressed, good-looking man who had prematurely gray hair.

The man was intelligent and polite, and the talk flowed until one of the dancers asked, "Hey, aren't you Steve Martin? The actor?" The man denied it, but the women were unconvinced. An invisible wall sprang up between them -- the wall that separates celebrities from ordinary people -- and the conversation died.

Who knows? Maybe the man was telling the truth and he wasn't Steve Martin, just a look-alike. But the real Martin, trapped inside his celebrity just as bank tellers are shielded by bulletproof glass, seems acutely aware of such barriers, if we can judge from his ventures into fiction. His 2001 novella "Shopgirl" is about an ordinary young woman -- she sells gloves at Neiman Marcus -- who attracts the attention of a rich older man. Is he savior or predator? How can she tell, when his wealth stands between them like a double-sided mirror, reflecting back each person's stereotype of the other but blocking any view of reality?

In Martin's second novella, "The Pleasure of My Company," the barrier exists in the mind of the 31-year-old narrator, Daniel Pecan Cambridge. He is bright but crippled by neuroses -- a mix of agoraphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. His life is hemmed in by elaborate "rules" that he can violate only at the cost of panic attacks. For example, he is afraid of curbs and can cross a street only if he finds two driveways directly opposite each other.

Over time, more and more of Daniel's life retreats inside his head. He loses his job, stops driving, watches no TV. He spends his days counting ceiling tiles in his Santa Monica apartment, composing "magic squares" (of numbers that add up to the same sum, whether vertically, horizontally or diagonally) and writing an essay on the ironic theme of how "average" he is, for a contest sponsored by an apple-pie maker. Twice a week he gets therapy from Clarissa, a psychologist-in-training. Checks from his grandmother in Texas pay the bills.

Martin, who has also written a collection of comic pieces titled "Cruel Shoes," another called "Pure Drivel," and a play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," is a skilled writer, and he makes Daniel's predicament more amusing and interesting than it deserves to be, given that Daniel isn't a character so much as a literary-workshop exercise.

How did Daniel get so messed up? For a long time we have no clue, and when Martin finally provides one -- Daniel's father didn't love him -- it seems too little, too late.

Daniel craves love, of course, and Clarissa, despite her professional distance, seems a possible source of it. So is Zandy, a pharmacist at the neighborhood Rite Aid; Elizabeth, a real estate agent who shows apartments across the street; and Philipa, an actress who lives upstairs from Daniel.

He finds ways to ingratiate himself with these women -- for example, by giving Philipa drug-laced health drinks to ease her stage fright -- but mostly he can only observe them. He is nice enough so that his voyeurism doesn't seem too creepy, but he is absurdly limited in what he can deduce about them from mere appearance.

Daniel is capable of realizing at one point that "my curb fear had been an indulgence so that I might feel special." Contemplating his sad-sack fellow finalists in the essay contest, he reflects that their "decency ... had not really been earned. It was a trait that nebbishes acquire by default because of our inability to act upon the world with a force greater than a nudge." He is so smart and funny, in fact, that his self-paralysis comes to seem less and less credible, and we wait with growing impatience for him to snap out of it.

The outside world, finally, does the snapping. Daniel's grandmother dies. Clarissa turns out to have a lovable 1-year-old son and an abusive ex-husband. Daniel finds himself on the road to Texas with a surrogate family, and a happy ending looms on the horizon as unmistakably as a saguaro. cactus. That the happy ending proves not to be the one we expect is a sign of Martin's cleverness -- but also a sign of the slightness, the arbitrariness, of the story.

Whether we're looking in from the everyday world, as those dancers did in Marina del Rey, or looking out at it, as Martin does here, the wall between movie stars and the rest of us isn't breached all that easily.

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