"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“The Pleasure of My Company,” Steve Martin’s tender morsel of a second novel, bears an odd, coincidental resemblance to Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” published a few months ago. Both books are narrated by people whose minds don’t function normally, who perceive the world through a channel narrowed by the limits of their own capacities. Martin’s narrator, Daniel Pecan Cambridge, however, is 30-ish (he habitually lies about his age and many other things) not 15, and while he is a mathematical savant along the lines of Haddon’s Christopher Boone (who always tells the truth), he is obsessive-compulsive rather than autistic. Both characters live lives circumscribed by the boundaries of their neighborhoods, but while Christopher dreams of being freed from the onus of human contact, Daniel yearns for it.
Standing in the way of Daniel’s desire is his fear of curbs, specifically stepping off of or onto them. To avoid traversing these “forbidding” eight-inch spans of vertical concrete, he carefully plans his rare forays out-of-doors around pairs of “scooped-out driveways.” This, needless to say, cramps his style. Sometimes he suspects that, uncramped, he’d be pretty irresistible: “What would happen to me and to those around me if my power became uncontained,” he worries, “if I were suddenly just too sensational to be managed? Maybe my obsessions are there to keep me from being too powerfully alluring.”
Daniel’s other obsessions include insisting that the aggregate wattage of all the light bulbs in any apartment he occupies equal exactly 1125, periodically needing to touch all four corners of each copy machine in the local Kinko’s, and Elizabeth, a Realtor he’s never spoken to but often sees from his window. Furthermore, he loves to iron. Yet these aberrations can’t obscure Daniel’s real charm. Perhaps the women around him — the distant, adored Elizabeth; Clarissa, a psychology student sent around to check up on him once a week; Phillipa, the high-strung actress who lives upstairs; and Zandy, the pharmacist goddess of Rite-Aid — don’t feel it, but any reader planning not to fall for him, and fall hard, is out of luck.
Part of Daniel’s appeal lies in his cockeyed apprehension of things, and his ability to spin wonder and intrigue out of the banal. Spotting a man standing outside his apartment building, he thinks, “for a moment I could have been in Sleepy Hollow except this man had a head and no horse.” He marvels at the splendors of the Rite-Aid (“the axle around which my squeaky world turns”), where “candy bars, laid out like organ keys, glistened in their foil wrappers.”
Here’s a guy who treasures the tiny scraps of fellowship the rest of us take for granted. Braving a gauntlet of terrifying curbs to attain the promised land of the Third Street Mall, Daniel delights in ordering “java” (“that is, saying it with the actual intent of getting some and not as a delightful sound to utter around my apartment”) at the Coffee Bean cafe. He notices that when a particular song comes on over the sound system all the patrons start absentmindedly drumming their fingers and tapping their toes. “I was inspired to blow on my hot coffee in three-quarter time … While it played, I and everybody else in the Coffee Bean had become as one. I was in the here and now, infected with a popular song that I had never heard, sitting among ‘buddies.’ And there was, for three long minutes, no difference between me and them.”
Daniel’s appreciation of his few friends is no less exquisite; he can read the transit of four distinct emotions across a woman’s face as she checks the number of an incoming call on her cellphone and decides not to pick up. And he’s no fool, even if he does win an essay contest, sponsored by a frozen pie company, for “Most Average American.” (Actually, he makes the finalist list twice, under his own name and a false one — long story.) The award ceremony is held at a creepy religious school called Freedom College, and involves a parade down Freedom Lane to Freedom Hall. “The more a word is repeated,” Daniel thinks, “the less likely it is that the word applies. ‘Bargain,’ ‘only,’ ‘fairness,’ are just a few.”
At first, “The Pleasure of My Company” seems unlikely to amount to more than a conglomeration of moments and observations, which, however droll or moving they may be, do not a novel make. But Martin pulls it together: The Average American contest, a death in the family and a crisis in the personal life of one of Daniel’s friends propel him toward the change he both dreads and needs. This is too good a man to go to waste, but it will take the world a while to figure that out, and even Daniel has his doubts. “There are few takers for the quiet heart,” he fears. Not at all, actually. Not at all.
– Laura Miller
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)