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The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin

 

Rating: (Mildly Recommended)

 

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Neurotic

I enjoyed reading Steve Martin’s Shopgirl a few years ago (read review), so when his new novella, The Pleasure of My Company, came out, I picked it right up. While the dialogue isn’t up to the quality of his prior offering, the imaginative presentation of memorable characters, and the plot are improvements. Written from the point of view of an obsessive-compulsive narrator, Martin shows the humanity beneath the disorder. Here’s an excerpt (pp. 60-65):

Let me tell you about my mailbox. It is one of twelve eroded brassy slots at the front entrance of my building. It is also my Ellis Island, because, as I don't have a phone or a computer, and I disconnected my TV, everything alien that comes to me comes through it first. The Monday after my dismal showing with Elizabeth, I went to the mailbox and retrieved six pieces of mail, took them to my kitchen table, and began sorting them into three piles. Into the Highly Relevant pile went two personal letters, one hand-addressed. In the Relevant pile, I put the mail that wasn't personal even though it was addressed to me—ads, announcements, and so on, because anything with my name on it I consider relevant. Third were the letters addressed to "resident" and "occupant." The Irrelevant pile. I had considered a fourth pile, because to me, "resident" is quite different from "occupant," and I have struggled and succeeded in coming up with a practical usage guide. Yes, I'm a resident and occupant of the Chrysanthemum Apartments, but if I went out on the sidewalk and put a large cardboard box over me and sat on the lawn, it could be said that I was an occupant of the cardboard box but not a resident of it. So "resident" letters could be sent only to my apartment, but "occupant" letters could be sent to cardboard boxes, junked cars, and large paint cans that I could stick my feet in. "Occupant" letters could legitimately be considered Very Highly Irrelevant.

The two letters that arrived that day were not insignificant. The first was from the Crime Show, informing me that the taping was completed on my episode and thanking me for my participation. Enclosed was a copy of the waiver I had signed that exempted the producers from all responsibility and made me liable for any lawsuits resulting from my appearance. It was probably not clever of me to sign it, but I wanted to be on TV. Plus, it seemed like it would be the nice thing to do. The letter also informed me that the show would be on several weeks from now and to keep checking my local listings for the exact date and time.

The second letter was an airy breeze of a handwritten note from Granny. I always delay opening her letters in the same spirit as saving the center of the Oreo for last. Granny lives on her pecan plantation in southern Texas (hence, my middle name, Daniel Pecan Cambridge). She is the one family member who understands that my insanity is benign and that my failure to hold a job is not due to laziness. The letter sang with phrases that I swear lifted me like a tonic: "Life is a thornbush from which roses spring; all the hearts in Texas are wishing for you; I smother you with the kisses that are in this letter." And then a check for twenty-five hundred dollars fell out of the envelope. The irony is that the one person who gives me money is the one person I wish I could hand the check back to and say no, only joy can pass between you and me. I found it difficult to write back. But I did, stingy with loving words because they don't come out of me easily. I hoped she could read between the lines; I hoped that the presence of the letter in my own hand, the texture of it, the wear and tear it had received on its trip across five states revealed my heart to her. I can't explain why it's easy to tell you and not her how she smooths the way for me, how her letters are the only true things in my life, how touching them connects me to the world. If only Tepperton's Pies had a Most-Loved Granny essay contest, I'd enter and my fervor would translate into an easy win. I could forward her the published piece in Tepperton's in-house journal and she could read it knowing it was an ode to her.

The week had been one of successes and setbacks. There was the triumph of my run with Brian and the failure of my peacocking for Elizabeth. There was my excitement at receiving Granny's letter but then the reminder of my own needy status when the check fell onto the kitchen table. But overall, there was an uptick in my disposition and I thought this might be the week for me to find the elusive Northwest Passage to the Third Street Mall.

The Third Street Mall is in the heart of Santa Monica on a street closed to traffic and has hundreds of useful shops with merchandise at both bargain and inflated prices. But it also has a Pavilions supermarket. I have been suffering along with the limited selection of groceries at the Rite Aid because it's the only place to which I'd mapped out a convenient route. If I could manage to get to the Pavilions, well, it would be like moving from Iraq to Hawaii. From barren canned goods and dried fruit to the garden of Eden. Also, coffee. Jeez, the Coffee Bean, Starbucks. I might not seem like the type who could sit at an outdoor cafe drinking a latte, but I am. Why? No motion required. It's just sitting. Sitting and sipping. I can't imagine a neurosis that would prevent one from raising one's arm to one's mouth while holding a cup, though given time. I'm sure I could come up with one. I also like the idea of saying "java." That is, saying it with an actual intent of getting some and not as a delightful sound to utter around my apartment.

I had tried and failed in this quest for Pavilions before, and I know why: cowardice and lack of will. This time I was determined to be determined, but there would be trials. My initial excursions hadn't allowed for anything less than perfection. The route had to make absolute logical sense: no double backs or figure eights, and the driveways had to be perfectly opposing each other. But if I thought the way an explorer would—yes, there would be rapids, there would be setbacks—perhaps I could eventually find the right path.

Maps, of course, are of no assistance except in the most general way. Maps show streets, but not obstacles. If only city maps could be made by people like me. They wouldn't show streets at all; they would show the heights of curbs, the whereabouts of driveways and crosswalks, and the locations of Kinko's. What about all those drivers who can't make left turns? Why aren't there maps for them? No, I was forced to discover my route by trial and error. But because I now had a catalogue of opposing driveways and their locations in my head, noted from various other attempts to find various other locations through the years, I was able to put together a possible route before I even started. With a few corrections made spontaneously, on my third attempt I finally established a pathway to the mall, and for three evenings afterward I fell asleep wrapped in the glow of enormous pride.

 

Having a route to the Third Street Mall meant that I was out in public more, so I had to come up with some new rules to make my forays outside my apartment more tolerable. When I was relaxing at the Coffee Bean having a java, for example, I drew invisible lines from customer to customer connecting plaids with plaids, solids with solids and T-shirts with T-shirts. Once done, it allowed my anxiety meter to flat-line. I got a kick out of the occasional conversation that arose with a "dude." One time, while enjoying my coffee, a particular tune was playing somewhere in the background. The melody was so cheerful that everyone in the place became a percussionist one way or another and with varying intensity. For some it was finger-drumming and for others it was foot-tapping. I was inspired to blow on my hot coffee in three-quarter time. But the oddest thing of all was that I knew this song. It was a current pop hit, but how had I come to know it? How had this tune gotten to me, through the mail? Somehow it had reproduced, spread, and landed in my mental rhythm section. While it played, I and everybody else in the Coffee Bean had become as one. I was in the here and now, infected with a popular song that I had never heard, sitting among "buddies." And there was, for three long minutes, no difference between me and them.

 

The chairs and tables of the Coffee Bean spilled onto the mall like an alluvial fan. I grabbed a seat that was practically in the street because I could see at least a full block in either direction. No need, though. Because what went on within the perimeter of the sidewalk cafe was enough for an afternoon's entertainment. People, I thought. These are people. Their general uniformity was interrupted only by their individual variety. My eyes roved around like a security camera. Then I was startled out of my reverie by the sight of the one-year-old who had passed by my window last week. His hand was held tightly by the same raven-haired woman, and he leaned in toward the doorway of a bookstore, straining like a dog on a leash. In answer to a voice from inside, the woman turned toward the door and let the child's hand loose. The boy careened the few steps inside and I saw him lifted into the air by two arms behind the glass storefront. Everything else in the window was obscured by a reflection from the street. The raven-haired woman was not the mother; this I had gathered. The raven-haired woman I assumed to be a sitter or friend. The child clung to the woman behind the glass, and when I saw that it was Clarissa who emerged from the shop, holding this child, so much of her behavior the previous week suddenly made sense.

Creative and interesting, if not finely written, The Pleasure of My Company is a brief, enjoyable escape into another world.

Steve Hopkins, October 28, 2003

 

ă 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC

 

The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Pleasure of My Company.htm

 

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