Steve Martin has always been one of the most intelligent of comedians (you won’t find Adam Sandler writing a play about Einstein and Picasso anytime soon), but this intelligence is manifested in gymnastically absurdist flights of fancy, rather than the politically informed riffs typical of performers like Lenny Bruce. Pure Drivel is a collection of pieces, most of them written for the New Yorker, that demonstrate Martin’s playful way with words and his unerring ability to create a feeling of serendipitous improvisation even on the printed page. Here’s a passage from a piece that announces a shortage of periods in the Times Roman font:
“Most vulnerable are writers who work in short, choppy sentences,” said a spokesperson for Times Roman, who continued, “We are trying to remedy the situation and have suggested alternatives, like umlauts, since we have plenty of umlauts — and, in fact, have more umlauts than we could possibly use in a lifetime! Don’t forget, umlauts can really spice up a page with their delicate symmetry — resting often midway in a word, letters spilling on either side — and not only indicate the pronunciation of a word but also contribute to a writer’s greater glory because they’re fancy, not to mention that they even look like periods, indeed, are indistinguishable from periods, and will lead casual readers to believe that the article actually contains periods!”
Although some of these pieces flirted with topicality when they first appeared, Martin is most successful when he leaves the real world behind and gives his wit free rein. This collection preserves the best (so far) of his glorious improvisations. — Simon Leake
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