Comedian Steve Martin follows his successful, but less than noteworthy first novel “Shopgirl” with his highly entertaining “The Pleasure of my Company.” Any one who has seen “As Good as it Gets” will feel in familiar territory. “Company” is a masquerade of discomfort and struggle not with conformity but with the social act of living. Both the movie and “Company” share a central character with obsessive-compulsive disorder that is saved from complete neurotic implosion by the love of a good woman and an even better child. It’s a feel good, warm-your-heart story, but not a little unsettling.
Steve Martin may think he has written a novel, but the readers of “The Pleasure of my Company” should know better. As a master of the comedic sketch and great movie “moments,” Martin has created a whole new kind of writing: an “anecdoterie.”
The characters and the plot play backseat to the role of his palm tree paragraphs. Sun shines through the leaves of this book and you can feel the heat and mania of life in southern California. If a writer were to try and portray a southern California as normal, that would be weird.
At first glance, “The Pleasure of my Company” is about a brilliant, but socially handicapped youngish (his age depends on his mood) man named Daniel Pecan Cambridge. The middle name is the first joke – this guy’s name is even nuts.
At one point, Daniel must have been or tried to work in the real world, but the only thing for which he is suited – coding – did not work out. Daniel is far from a 9-5 type and, conveniently for him, his inability to function in the world is supported by a wealthy grandmother who sends him weekly checks tucked into her correspondence.
Because of his issues, of which there are many, Daniel is confined to certain activities. Since he can only leave the sidewalk at parallel sections where the curb disappears, for example, at a scooped-out driveway, the places he can go are very limited. Daniel requires hours to get home if he leaves his own block. He dreams of creating a route to a nearby mall as he only has the Rite Aid mapped out thus far. It takes extraordinary situations, such as the endangerment of his therapist’s child, for Daniel to realize that the stairs he climbs regularly are no different than the curbs he cannot seem to cross.
Daniel does not find himself crazy, but he recognizes his uniqueness. He enters a “Most Normal Person in America” essay contest twice, once under an assumed name, and the consequences are priceless, yet a bit strained. Martin doesn’t take the joke too far, thank God, but turns it into an unforeseen force in Daniel’s life when he wins. The contest serves multiple purposes: to make fun of America’s notion of itself and consumer goods (the contest is sponsored by a company called Tepperton’s Pies), to force Daniel to jump the curb, and to segue into the suicide of Daniel’s grandma. A little journey – to a nearby college to read his winning essay – is followed by a big journey — to the grandmother’s house to say goodbye. The bonds between Daniel and his car companions are clearly important.
Since his grandmother lived in Texas and his absence from home will be longer than he finds acceptable, he imposes upon himself a challenge to speak sans the letter `e’ to calm himself and restore order to the world. This is also the same guy who does magic squares, where numbers are placed in boxes so they share the same sum both across and down. The small, half-finished versions that math teachers imposed on us in school are a source of pleasure and relaxation for Daniel when he can start a 14 by 14 version on his own. A genius unable to function in society – where have we seen this before?
Martin’s grasp of language’s ability to twist a reader’s sympathies is masterful. Daniel is just too sweet to be annoying, too pathetic to be cloying, too crazy to be unbelievable. More importantly, Martin is as funny on paper as he is in person. He tosses lines like “Clarissa was Mother Teresa to my leprosy” out like a madman doling Halloween candy out at Thanksgiving. It’s completely unnecessary and unexpected but no one refuses the candy.
Martin’s book, which is funny and tender as is, would be ten times funnier read out loud. This is a book of actors not characters, of lines not dialogue. This doesn’t make the book bad, it just makes it different – Martin’s style is unique, a natural speaker with an ear for comedy, trying to turn off the sound of his own voice. He never quite manages it, and Martin’s signature undertones are always echoing beneath the sentences, particularly in Daniel’s most self-conscious bits of narration. “I sifted through a dozen bon mots that I could utter just before he punched me, hoping that someone nearby would hear one and deliciously repeat it to my posthumous biographer.”
Like Martin’s white noise, Daniel’s neuroses are also far from harmonious. Daniel’s kryptonite is curbs, which destroy the natural plane. They force illogical dimension on natural order, and Daniel must have order, mathematical, spatio-temporal order. There must always be 1125 watts of light on, yet it never occurs to him that the wattage at the Rite Aid (or outside) could never be that sum. And barbed wire fascinates him.
Still, each oddity of Daniel’s is new and endearing. There is no surging melodrama. He’s just a quirky fellow trying to get along, with one thing keeps getting in his way, making his perfectly comfortable if restricted world impossible: his hormones.
Daniel’s encounters with women are nothing if not disastrous. He inadvertently gets his neighbor-actress Philipa hooked on a drug-laced beverage and blows several opportunities to have his way with her when she fights with her boyfriend, Brian, whose good-natured dumbness is his greatest asset – leading to all sorts of embarrassing but joyful gestures of friendship. He lusts after the real estate agent, Elizabeth, who is constantly trying to sell the shady property across the street from him. He tries to jog, and thinks loafers and khakis are proper exercise apparel. His obsession with Elizabeth vanishes when they finally spend some time together and Fortune happens to broadcast an old episode of Crime Show, on which Daniel played a murder suspect who was quickly cleared of all charges. Daniel decides he and Elizabeth aren’t meant to me. His fancies are immediately transferred to Clarissa, his single mother caseworker – therapist – houseguest. Their relationship escalates and takes strange curves but never becomes what it shouldn’t become. Throughout Daniel is also dazzled by the Rite Aid girl, Zandy, who knows his medications and is out of his league, or so he thinks. Ironically, though, it’s not the women but the child-like Brian and Clarissa’s son Teddy, who have total faith in Daniel, who help him to become a more full, courageous man.
Daniel is a combination of John Nash and Steve Martin without the hallucinations and paranoia but the same self-absorption. The ending, weak with Hollywood schizo-Woody Allen-ness, says yes, crazy man can triumph over own nutsiness with the help of his friends and true love. And live happily ever after.
This, of course, is the major problem of “Company.” No psychiatrist would approve of Martin’s final message that neither therapy nor medicine can overcome the physical manifestations and social restrictions of Daniel’s mental illness, but love can, love, along with the company of someone other than Daniel himself. Not that Daniel’s eccentricities are fully erased at the end, but the gooey, though surprising, fantasy ending flies in the face of medical wisdom. Then again, this is a Steve Martin book, so one may not need to take this peccadillo too seriously.
In the end, this is a light, feathery book, a book you could read on a flight from Chicago to L.A. and then leave for the pleasure of someone taking the return flight.