26 March 2009

"Cruel Shoes" by Steve Martin

Cruel Shoes
Steve Martin
Date of Publication: June 1979
Cover Price: $6.95
128 pages

In LaGrange stands Karen's Book Barn.  Most customers peruse the obvious shelves of books for sale, all arranged on shelves where the subjects are clearly labeled.  They buy their coffee, maybe find something on the shelf, maybe place a special request and then they depart.  These are the ones who miss the real gem of the place: the basement.  Downstairs are far more books than are housed upstairs.  The disadvantage is that they are haphazardly strewn about, collecting dust; many are at least on shelves, but just as many are scattered across tables and in boxes.  The upshot is that there are some great finds waiting to be retrieved.  I was certain I'd found just such a diamond in the rough when I found a first printing of Steve Martin's Cruel Shoes.

Calling this a book depends almost exclusively on the definition of a book being a bound collection of printed pages, ostensibly united by a common theme.  The 128 pages include several full-page photographs of Martin performing on stage, as well as select photos of his backstage dressing room.  The print, spacing and margins are so large that today, a publisher would tell even a star of Martin's stature this is little more than a pamphlet.

By now, you're wondering what Cruel Shoes even is.  There are 52 absurdist...stories?  I really don't know how to characterize them.  What I can say, though, is they make Steven Wright look conventional.  Consider the following:
YES, SHE WAS WITTY; yes, she was intelligent.  She was born of high station.  She spoke and walked proudly.  She was the kind who displayed nobility, who showed style and class.  But above all, she had the jugs.
Many people called her by her last name; some closer friends had a confidence with her and shared the intimacy of her first name.  But to me, she was always "Lady jugs a-plenty."
It is true.  She was clever and she was charming, but above all, she had the jugs.
That is "She Had the Jugs," in its entirety, as printed on page 54.  Nowhere else in Cruel Shoes is this woman referenced.  One could scarcely even call these jokes, as there is no obvious punchline (except in a few, such as "Wrong Number").  Perhaps this material works best performed live by its author to an appreciative audience.  Isolated to the printed page, though, one begins to question how long it can possibly go before something recognizable as humor emerges.

And that's the charm of this little collection.  There is no punchline.  This is absurdity in its truest form.  Lewis Caroll himself never imagined such nonsense.  Fans expecting to laugh should instead expect to scratch their heads.  All I can say definitively is that the photographs by Bobby Klein (and one by S. Schwartz) alone make this volume worth owning.

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