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review: fiction

The 2007 publication of Steve Martin's Born Standing Up should have put to rest any lingering preconceptions that the star of The Jerk wasn't capable of artistic expressions more rarefied than a well-executed pratfall.

A spare, graceful memoir about Martin's life before fame, the book was the strongest evidence thus far that the former philosophy major was more than a professional buffoon.

Then again, his appearance in a feeble sequel to an already unnecessary remake of The Pink Panther last year muddied the waters again. Could both of these Steve Martins - the wild and crazy guy and the literary stylist just hitting his stride - co-exist in the same space-time continuum?

While physicists continue to work on that quandary, An Object of Beauty - Martin's third (and best) novel - brings another side of the man further into view.

Long a member of the top echelon of celebrity art collectors (Elton John and ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons are similarly distinguished), Martin has amassed a collection that includes works by Picasso, de Kooning and Hopper. There was even an exhibition of his acquisitions in Las Vegas in 2001.

The new book is itself a kind of exhibition; inside are 22 full-colour reproductions of works cited in this tale of an ambitious young dealer who cuts a swath through New York's art boom of the 1990s. The diversity of the book's own gallery of artists - which ranges from James Tissot to Maurizio Cattelan - is yet more proof of Martin's good taste.

Such a tactic puts the author at risk of coming off as a pretentious poseur (it can't help that a large part of the public will forever remember him for his balloon-animal expertise). Instead, it adds another layer to a book that already engages and satisfies on many levels, Martin's keen eye for the works at hand being matched by his understanding of the vagaries of the art market and the players who populate it.

Martin's passion for the subject is equally palpable in the vigour exuded by his protagonist. Whereas characters in his previous novels, Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company, often seemed thinly conceived, Lacey Yeager is a remarkably vivid and dynamic creation. Cunning but not ruthless, unsentimental but not unfeeling, this young woman is unafraid to exploit both her good looks and her moral flexibility if it means gaining an edge over the competition.

The novel charts her progress from a lowly Sotheby's newbie to a doyenne of the Chelsea scene. As seen through the eyes of the book's Nick Carraway-like narrator - an art critic and some-time Lacey confidant named Daniel Franks - she becomes a representative figure for a business that excels at "converting objects of beauty into objects of value."

As the market overheats around her and the dominance of the abstract expressionist and pop art old guard is upended by upstart conceptualists (whom Martin resists the easy temptation to parody), Lacey is poised to succeed. Unfortunately for her, she is unable to maintain the necessary divide between her ambitions and her emotions. Encounters with certain key artworks (a Maxfield Parrish print owned by her grandmother, an Andy Warhol flower painting) and certain key gentlemen (the ever-pining Daniel, her wealthy French suitor Patrice) draw her closer to a personal precipice.

Actually, the whole business is heading over the same ledge. One of the great strengths of An Object of Beauty is how subtly and succinctly it charts the wider shifts in an era that was volatile even by New York standards. Though the social rituals of SoHo openings may belong to their own special realm, we can see how the conflicts and collaborations between art and commerce in Lacey's glamorous circle has a relevance beyond it. Likewise, the feeling of exhilaration in Martin's prose as he notes Lacey's first conquests eventually gives way to a harder, bleaker tone, the popping of the art-market bubble clearly prefiguring the larger catastrophes of 9/11 and the near-collapse of Wall Street.

Ultimately, what Martin has created is not just a crafty portrait of the art world but a haunting tragicomedy of manners. As such, it fits into a lineage of Manhattan stories stretching back to Edith Wharton and Henry James and up through Louis Auchincloss and John Updike.

Appropriately enough, the lattermost literary icon makes a cameo appearance here, as do art writer Peter Schjeldahl and painter Dorothea Tanning. Nowhere will you find a rubber chicken, but that shouldn't come as a disappointment.

Jason Anderson is a writer and critic in Toronto and the author of the novel Showbiz.