The funny thing about Steve Martin's first work of extended fiction, "Shopgirl," is that it's not funny. At least not the laugh-out-loud-and-frighten-the-horses funny of Martin's early stand-up comedy, or of his performance as the man-woman in "All of Me," or the humor pieces in his collection "Pure Drivel." "Shopgirl," which really is about a 28-year-old woman behind the glove counter at the Neiman Marcus department store in Beverly Hills, offers quieter pleasures: a delicate portrait of people inflicting subtle pain on others and themselves, and an appeal to the intelligent heart. Sitting in a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Martin muses that if you were to tape-record someone reading his book in an otherwise silent room, then play back the tape, you'd hear "maybe a little sniffle."
Not that "Shopgirl" (Hyperion; 130 pages; $17.95) isn't also funny. It's full of metaphors that raise wry smiles (a goodbye kiss "so formal it might as well have been wearing a tuxedo") and lots of pert social commentary, especially about a Los Angeles subspecies of sexual predators "whose highest accomplishments are that they were cute in high school." But the author is serious about his glove lady, Mirabelle Buttersfield, and about Ray Porter, the fiftysomething man Mirabelle admits into her solitary life. Once Martin fashioned funny-weird balloon animals; now, at 55, he creates funny-sad, nice and not-so-nice people, as real as your morning-after face in the bathroom mirror.
Mirabelle is a study in isolation. When not standing sentinel behind the counter, she works on eerie drawings. Pretty and slim, she is so shy, so inexpert in marketing herself, that people don't notice her—or, if they do see her, think of Olive Oyl. Ray, though, has a more discerning eye than most. A rich businessman on a field trip for erotic adventure, he stops at her counter to buy a pair of gloves, and—a nice touch—sends them to her. Thus begins a courtship defined by emotional compromise, misunderstood signals and the sort of betrayals that dent relationships but do not, in the real world, end them. Because, for a lonely person, something is better than nothing. "Mirabelle needs a companion," says Martin, "someone to talk to. I think that happens in life too. People get together, even if it's not right, to have someone to talk to."
Ray is a considerate lover and, that rarer commodity, a considerate suitor; he doesn't push conquest. In his fashion, Ray is also faithful: when he has erotic daydreams, he thinks only of Mirabelle. But he does not see that her need is of a greater, higher order than his. Besides, Ray is a man. "His caring is a potion," the book's omniscient narrator tells us, "mixed with one part benevolent altruist and one part chimpanzee penis." Is that unusual? Or, for that matter, wrong? No, Martin says. "But it's a ratio. When you're young, the chimpanzee ratio is 80-20, and when you're older it's supposed to be 20-80."
Helen Fielding ("Bridget Jones's Diary") read the book, assumed Ray was Steve and, says Martin, told him, "You're a little rough on yourself." Martin denies that "Shopgirl" is any kind of autobiography; it's a mixture of observation and research. "A lot of people think that celebrities are isolated," he says. "But the truth is that every minute of their lives is as melodramatic as every minute of everybody else's. So you can extrapolate from your own experience into almost anything. The emotions are no different."
Shopgirl is subtitled A Novella—an old-fashioned word that itself wears gloves. Martin, so effortlessly hip he doesn't mind seeming square, happily accedes to the word. "'Old-fashioned' runs through this book," he says. "Mirabelle is slightly out of it, out of the center. She's not a dynamic heroine. A heroine has to act, and she doesn't, which made her infinitely more interesting to me than an exciting, vibrant girl."
This is literature to be read alone, curled up in the palm of an easy chair, with a Satie or Sade CD purring on the stereo. The book is like one of Mirabelle's sketches: small, deft, pensive, poignant—a moving still life. Martin doesn't see it's becoming a movie, "because the meaning isn't in the characters' actions. It lives within the sentences. This format was the only way to tell this story."
This slim mint of semisweet romantic fiction is eons removed from his last long work, the screenplay for "Bowfinger"—a comic celebration of show-biz community. Yet he doesn't see the book as an aberration, or even a detour. "No one knows my work better than me," he says. "I know every little thing I've done. And to me, "Shopgirl" is a logical conclusion to what I've been doing."
Martin hasn't renounced the comic persona he has suavely hewn for three decades: the genial buffoon too full of himself to realize he's a failure. "I'm actually trying to write a book in that voice," he says. That would be a daunting stunt, like juggling a chainsaw, a watermelon and an audience's impatience. But here Martin has pulled off a task even more difficult: bringing two people to life in the laboratory of language.