I have always been interested in artists who can successfully cross genres. What is more interesting than a ballet dancer who likes to sing in a jazz band or a poet who can write short stories? It is interesting to see what an artist is like in another field. This is what first drew me to the novella Shopgirl by Steve Martin which I picked up for .25 cents at the Red Cross Book Fair.
One glance at the book jacket and I knew, yup, it was that Steve Martin: comedian, actor and general all around funny guy. I have always like Mr. Martin. His movies are generally feel good experiences and he has a kind and likable personality. I saw the movie Shopgirl several years ago and did not remember it very well, so I thought I would read the novella.
Not long after I bought the book I saw Martin interviewed on The Daily Show. John Stewart reminded the audience of Mr. Martin’s memoir Born Standing Up in which he recounts his life as a stand up comedian and how he got his start in the business. I decided to go on an all Steve Martin reading bonanza.
Shopgirl took place almost exclusively in the character's heads. The thoughts and actions and motivations of each character were first and foremost on the writer’s mind. Sure they went out to dinner, but they had few conversations and seemed to exist in a sort of dreamy, quiet world. It felt like everyone whispered and cried and sulked. It was a love story of sorts, and I can’t say I liked it, but it was an intriguing book. I think the movie may have been better.
I enjoyed Born Standing Up much more. Steve Martin is well educated and very smart and from this it is easy to see how he became a successful comedian. It is a lot of hard work, meeting the right people and being in the right place. Martin told a mostly chronological tale of how he got his start and what some of his early influences were. It was a compelling read that brought home how difficult the stand up life is. He talked about his years on Saturday night live and writing for the Sonny and Cher show. The most profound and revealing parts of this memoir are when he discusses his relationship with his parents. It felt like a tiny part of the whole story, but it many ways it loomed very large. These short sentences and remembrances of his parents were always moving. Perhaps what is most telling about this memoir is that Martin is not extraordinary in his drug use or his being abused or abusing people. He only behaves outrageously as a part of his act, but not as a fellow citizen of the planet. He just is a good hard-working man, and he can write well about how he got to where he is.
So there you have it—a pair of Steve Martin books. Now I’ll have to rent The Jerk.