Easy Reader: Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty Is An Object of Flawed Beauty

Steve Martin may be a wild and crazy guy elsewhere, but when it comes to his new novel An Object of Beauty, set squarely in Manhattan's art-and-commerce world (more commerce than art, in the book's view), he's serious.

Oh, boy, is he serious!

An eager reader, aware of Martin's earlier humor collections Cruel Shoes and Pure Drivel, might expect him to acknowledge satire's pull, but apparently his love of art, its merchandising and his growing proficiency on the subject -- not to mention his reported close friendships with powerful dealers like Larry Gagosian and William Acquavella -- precludes his waxing whimsical. Indeed, how light-hearted and nose-thumbing might Martin turn after selling his Edward Hopper "Hotel Window" in 2006 for $26,896,000, a auction record at the time for the artist?

(An interesting aspect of the painting in context of Martin's recent ownership is the marked resemblance between him and the well-dressed woman in it gazing with little affect through a window. A viewer might legitimately wonder whether he saw his mother or a close relative whenever he looked at it.)

So the implication of An Object of Beauty (Grand Central Publishing, $26.99) is that serious money fosters serious scribbling, as freelance art critic (read poorly paid and not able to build his own collection) Daniel Franks writes down everything he knows about--and some of which he feels free to fill in the blanks about -- the protagonist, Lacey Yeager. She's a young women in a rapid and determined act-scene rise on the pertinent pre- and immediately post-millennial Madison Avenue and Chelsea blocks.

Stepping up art-ladder rungs, Lacey stops first in Sotheby's nether reaches, wangles her way upstairs, advances to suave Barton Talley's gallery and eventually opens her own establishment, where she introduces hot up-and-comers, most of them women. On the way, she dallies only briefly with Daniel and spends more time but not especially quality time (as she sees it) with Frenchman Patrice Claire and eventually an FBI agent called Parks.

Incidentally, that handy, randy agent arrives in her life when a bidding indiscretion she commits at a Sotheby's auction comes to light late in the book -- and later than it probably should in Martin's somewhat manipulative plotting. But before and after a revelation that also implicates Daniel, Lacey is careful to ingest the necessary information about the milieu she wants to conquer and also butters up to the collectors with the right bread.

But Lacey would never have her chosen arena down pat if Martin himself hadn't done due diligence. He knows -- or makes it seem as if he knows -- as much about how art works in New York City, Paris, London and Los Angeles (where buddy Gagosian started out) as he does about knocking 'em dead wearing his stand-up comic's hat (arrow?) or wowing them with fast-fingered banjo canoodling.

Of wily Barton Talley's acumen, Martin confides the man knew "it could be harder to sell something that was for sale than it was to sell something that wasn't for sale." Writing about dealers' and collectors' changing attitudes, he avers, "Formerly, dealers tried to earn the respect of their collectors. Now collectors were trying to earn the respect of their dealers." And, make no mistake, Martin knows in what flashy, even if elegant, restaurants all the respect-earning takes place.

To match his command of the field and seemingly every artist in it from Andy Warhol to Cy Twombly to Richard Serra (many of them handled by the ubiquitous Gagosian), first-time novelist Martin -- his successful Shopgirl is categorized as a novella -- has wonderful descriptive skills, too. Of a Sotheby's customer, possibly Jamaican, he pens, "...his head circled in a scarf with sun-bleached dreadlocks piled on top, looking like a plate of soft-shelled crabs." Good, no? -- and there are any number of tropes equal to it.

But the book -- populated by characters with Jackie Collins names like Spencer Quinto, Pansy Berks, the Boggs Ben and Belinda and the above-cited Patrice Claire -- does have a core problem: Lacey Yeager. She's not as interesting as either narrator-within-the-narrative Daniel or Martin thinks she is.

Scheming to reach her profession's pinnacle -- and running afoul, among other historic events, of 9/11 and the 2008 economic downturn -- she's not so much the "tricky and unreliable" gal Martin characterizes as she is kinda boring. Perhaps that's because the observant author sees calculated yet workaday behavior as art-world reality. If so, it's a disappointing perspective.

Liberally shooing real people onto Lacey's path -- and including small reproductions of actual paintings on his pages -- Martin imagines (carefully recreates?) a dinner several types enjoy at the honest-to-goodness Joe's Stone Crab in Miami.

Present at the gathering are New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl and his wife, Brooke. Of her, Martin says she "gave off such a vibe of fun that I knew it was she I would try to sit next to." He gains that perch. Too bad for An Object of Beauty that he doesn't pick up more of his dinner partner's ballyhooed fun vibe.