Book review: The Pleasure of My Company, by Steve Martin

originally posted elsewhere: April 15, 2004

tl;dr: Portrait of a young obsessive-compulsive...

Steve Martin is without a doubt one of America's top, multi-talented entertainers over the past four decades. His best films (Roxanne, L.A. Story) are warm, funny, uplifting portraits of regular (okay, slightly irregular) folks. I enjoyed Shopgirl, finding it to be a touching true-to-life story of people connecting amidst the paradoxical loneliness of life in a crowded modern day American city (Shopgirl has the potential to make a very good movie). The Pleasure of My Company explores similar themes, yet since the main character is so obviously mentally disturbed, I could not develop a deep attachment or identification with him, which prevented the story from affecting me as deeply as Martin's best work.

Although almost everyone has episodes of shyness, which handicap them from directly obtaining the object of their desires, the protagonist of The Pleasure of My Company handicaps himself to such extremes that it is hard for the reader to know how to react. Martin spends a significant portion of the book describing these self-afflictions, in painful detail in many cases. Some of them are terribly sad, some are just plain stupid, and some are quite funny (my favorite was when the main character decides, for several days, to avoid saying any words with the letter "E" in them - the slightly convoluted sentences that he devises to converse with others who don't know about this self-imposed limitation show off Martin's subtle humor at its best). So, while humor is definitely one of Martin's intents, at other times I felt as if I was being asked to laugh at the truly mentally ill. Or, more likely, Martin did want to invoke more complicated feelings of pathos in the reader. But whatever his intent, it did prevent me from identifying with the main character, which in turn made it hard to apply the lessons from the book.

A book cover, with the title and author's name, featuring the image of the back of a man dressed in slacks and a collared shirt, standing on the street in front of a pink and red house, with hands gripping the man's shoulder and side, those hands probably belonging to the man himself as there is no other evidence of anyone else

There are a few other more minor flaws in The Pleasure of My Company. There is a diversion in the plot whereby the main character enters an essay contest and gets invited to speak at fictional "Freedom College", modeled after evangelical colleges here in the U.S. Yet the essays submitted are so awful (as the main character states, every sentence in his essay contradicts the prior one) and the people at the college so wooden that Martin fails to concede even an iota of intelligence to the target of his satire. But no one is that stupid, so it is too easy to dismiss the points Martin was trying to make.

The Pleasure of My Company does have a redeeming message to convey: even a painfully shy, afflicted individual can, if they open their hearts widely to others and open their lives a tiny bit to social interaction, find a true, healing love. And there are some warm and humorous passages. However, for those who have not yet read any Steve Martin, I would recommend Shopgirl over The Pleasure of My Company, and I would urge some caution before spending time and money on The Pleasure of My Company.