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A writer who loves to surprise...

Who is the real Steve Martin? According to the first sentence of the author bio on the jacket of "An Object of Beauty," his well-written and researched yet emotionally uninvolving new novel, he is "a legendary writer, actor, and performer."

All true. But he's also an almost schizo toe-dipper in both high and low culture.

In the past several years alone he released a Grammy-winning banjo album, co-hosted the Oscars, starred in the execrable "Pink Panther 2," wrote a wonderful memoir on his early years in comedy ("Born Standing Up"), and, oddly, co-wrote and produced "Traitor," the flawed but fresh Don-Cheadle-starring post- 9/1 1 spy thriller. Oh, he also made a controversial New York appearance in which his discussion of art led an audience likely expecting a wild-and-crazy-guy to be offered refunds. (Shame on the organizers for such a knee-jerk response.)

This is the same Martin who has both starred in sloppy family fare like "Cheaper by the Dozen" and written the acclaimed play "Picasso at the Lapine Agile." It's a rather absurd career, but it leaves no doubt that Steve Martin is as brilliant a comedic mind we have. I just wish he was a tad more picky.

I've left out Steve Martin, novelist, which makes his career even more unique. His novella "Shopgirl" was sweet but dreary, and I found everyone outside of its heroine unconvincing. He certainly showed a keen eye for her place of work, the Beverly Hills Neiman Marcus, and likewise, "An Object of Beauty" presents a New York art world that is believably self-possessed, yet also uniquely situated in the midst of money and power.

While our narrator is a writer named Daniel Franks, our true protagonist is Lacey Yeager, an ambitious, beautiful gallery-climber who moves from a small job at Sotheby's to "an uptown woman with an increasing tug toward Chelsea."

Her rise is likely meant to parallel the changing art environment, but I would have preferred a nonfiction study of the gallery scene, since I didn't buy the smug, destructive Lacey for a minute. She feels phony, an author's creation as ambiguous and unreal as, well, most of the characters in "Shopgirl." Franks, his later love interest Tanya, and an FBI agent who becomes involved with Lacey barely register. Perhaps only wealthy Frenchman Patrice Claire, who falls hard for our heroine, seems unique enough for his own novel.

For "An Object of Beauty" suffers greatly from the same problem that was evident in "Shopgirl": the characters are, for the most part, neither likable or interesting -- to say nothing of believable. An unlikable character can make for great reading, of course. But unlikable and uninteresting? Hard to overcome.

Quite simply, Martin is better at setting than character, and perhaps that comes as a surprise. "Beauty's" art world is tragic and fascinating, written with clear knowledge, respect and intense observation. (The stills of well-known paintings throughout the book make a lovely visual addition, too.) Martin knows this world -- he's a collector and a member -- and it shows.

Take, for instance, his description of how the economic collapse of 2008 impacted the industry, almost overnight: "Art magazines and auction catalogs thinned. Darwinism slept through Chelsea, killing off a few species, and only the ones with the long necks that could reach the leaves at the tops of the trees survived. There was still some business, but -- negotiations got tougher and tougher up and down the street as collectors, even the ones unaffected, wanted bargains."

And here, his reasoning for why art as business was so vulnerable: "Art as an aesthetic principle was supported by thousands of discernment and psychic rewards, but art as a commodity was held up by air. The loss of confidence that affected banks and financial instruments was now affecting cherubs, cupids and flattened popes. The objects hadn't changed: what was there before was there after. But a vacancy was created when the clamoring crowds deserted and retrenched."

Read "An Object of Beauty" for its wondrous exploration of a setting few of us know -- not for its rather ho-hum characters -- and you'll come away with even more respect for Steve Martin.

But also, more questions. Who exactly Steve Martin is will likely remain muddy forever. And isn't that more interesting?

Christopher Schobert is a staff editor at Buffalo Spree and is a freelance local critic.1

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An Object of Beauty

By Steve Martin

Grand Central

304 pages, $26.99

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