Like the fuzzy little puff of marabou on the instep of a coquette's satin bedroom slipper comes Steve Martin's "Pure Drivel." Martin's book of diminutive, often hilarious essays -- some of which have appeared in the New Yorker -- is the sort of thing you can whiz through in an evening, light reading that's effortless and silly even as it's subtly erudite. For one thing, Martin knows how to shape an essay: For him, it's just a matter of knowing where to put the punch line, and it works practically every time.
In Martin's world, a Mars probe reveals that the red planet is home to some 27 3-month-old kittens: "Modern kitten theory suggests several explanations for the kittens' existence on Mars. The first, put forward by Dr. Patricia Krieger of the Hey You Bub Institute, suggests that kittens occur both everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. In other words, we see evidence of kitten existence, but measuring their behavior is another matter. Just when the scientists point their instruments in a kitten's direction it is gone, only to be found later in another place, perhaps at the top of drapes."
Martin's experiments are most effective when they're just plain goofy ("Times Roman Font Announces Shortage of Periods" should be declared a national treasure by copy editors and proofreaders everywhere). They fall flat, though, when Martin aims to make bigger statements, as when he stages an argument between Lucy and Ricky (loosely disguised as Hillary and Bill) over whether or not oral sex constitutes adultery. And one of the pieces here is just plain obtuse. In it, Michael Jackson's face has lunch with Walter Matthau's face. Are lines like "I listen carefully ... to expressionless lips whispering, 'What will I tell my child? How, when I am dying and unable to speak, will I look into his eyes and say I love you?'" supposed to be parody? (If they're not, they should be.)
But mostly, Martin brings these hang-gliding essays in right on the money. There is such a thing as an elegant puff piece, and Martin knows how to write it.