An Object of Beauty

By Steve Martin

Grand Central Publishing. 292 pp. $26.99

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Reviewed by Abby Frucht

Just as Hitchcock donned a cowboy hat to appear in


, so do some novelists enjoy lurking around in their own books.

While some lurk poetically and others ironically, Steve Martin strolls past in a spirit of soulful self-parody. As in his standup routines, for which the comic favors longer-running gags over jokes and punch lines, the now-seasoned novelist invites readers to hover inside a mysterious, lighthearted sadness.

While we know on Page 1 that the behind-the-scenes narrator of An Object of Beauty will end up woebegone, we also know he'll soldier on. Not until we're finished chuckling over his blunders do we realize we might never know exactly what's behind the pangs we feel for him.

When asked why his movie The Jerk has endured, Martin answers that it's "innocent" and "very cheerful," and that its lead character is "kind of stupid." An Object of Beauty is less innocent than The Jerk, for its wisecracking rebuke of the New York art scene pulls no punches.

That woebegone narrator, an Art News writer unobtrusive even in his dullness, with a hip-nerd appearance that is pointedly reminiscent of Martin's jacket photo, wears a dunce cap, for sure.

Earnestly, he narrates the roller-coaster career of Lacey Yeager, a ladder-climbing art dealer with an alert eye, a beautiful face, more than her share of moxie, and a heart of gold unless no one's investing in metals that day. Lacey's captivating treachery is one of Martin's most skillful inventions, for we like her despite herself, and if the art scene starts out being Greek to us, her aptitude for bidding, gallery hopping, and schmoozing is contagious.

Martin knows this world well. As Julie Bosman wrote in the New York Times: "Part of the reason to write about art, he said, was the challenge of capturing a world that is still a little foreign to him. This comes from a man who owned an Edward Hopper painting, Hotel Window, that he sold at Sotheby's in 2006 for $26.8 million." And it's not just the "scene" but the art he knows well. "There's not a day I don't look at or spend some amount of time with an artwork," Martin was quoted as saying.

From uptown to downtown, with a foray to Paris, he lets us observe the enterprising Lacey reinvent herself in the face of 9/11 and the stock market crash of 2008, when her first big gallery opening is more swan song than gala.

We chart the value of a Warhol she bought for a lark, witness real estate deals, attend auctions at Sotheby's, and treat ourselves along the way to Martin's lampoons of art criticism: "An artist who painted a face was now 'playing with the idea of a portraiture,' but he or she was never, ever simply painting a face." A plaster-and-wood representation of a kitchen sink "embars the viewer from the action it implies."

When David Letterman asked Martin during a Late Show appearance in November how he finds time "to do all of this," Martin replied, "Well, I don't have a job." Wearing chartreuse and purple, the author of Shop Girl and star of It's Complicated looked like a cameo lurking inside his own cameo.

It's as if the real Steve Martin, the one who takes the world altogether seriously, might be hiding in his trailer at a movie set, admiring the paintings that have been reproduced, some of them in color, in the pages of this novel.

More than 20 artworks dot the narrative, all illuminated by Martin's insights.

Milton Avery's Nude Bathers comes with a description of Avery's pictures as "always polite, but they were polite in the way that a man with a gun might be polite: There was plenty to back up his request for attention."

John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark is stunning in its "perverse beauty."

Unlike the audience members who were so discomfited by Martin's all-art discussion with Deborah Solomon at the 92d Street Y in November that their tickets were refunded, I'd gladly follow Martin all the way to the Metropolitan Museum to learn about the "sentience" of "ascended" paintings.

Fine paintings, like good novels, suggest more than meets the eye. Beneath the surface lie the depths, and if those depths are rendered hauntingly enough, it sometimes takes a while for the viewer to reckon with them.

Readers of An Object of Beauty will likely be mulling it over long after they've finished, parsing Martin's intersecting references to value and worth, and not only as value pertains to paintings.

By the close of the novel, Lacey's betrayal of that art-writer-narrator has cost him far more than any one of us would ever care to lose. It's a mischievous close to a thought-provoking novel whose many amusements make no secret of their assorted misdemeanors.

Martin's no loafer, but he does enjoy causing a spat.

Abby Frucht is a novelist, essayist, and short-story writer.