One of Steve Martin's greatest gifts as an actor is that while he often chooses to play dumb, he doesn't necessarily look dumb. So it's no surprise that some of his extracurricular activities display a wit and intelligence not always apparent in his frequently flimsy Hollywood vehicles. Martin's recent forays into screenwriting, theater, and essays find him dedicated to expanding his creativity into more traditionally intellectual outlets, so far with relatively strong results. The next entry on the literary checklist, a slim novella called Shopgirl, is another Los Angeles story. This one is about Mirabelle, a girl manning the glove counter at Neiman Marcus, and her relationship with an older paramour whose presence gives her plain life focus and hope. "Write what you know," the saying goes, but Martin deviates just enough from the standard California love story to make Shopgirl special. He cleverly twists the clichés of L.A. living to his advantage by excising extraneous dialogue. It's remarkable how often vapid chatter defines West Coast smarm, and without it, Martin's city comes across as quieter and lonelier than it's usually portrayed. His depiction of sex as a means rather than an end subtly subverts popular notions of courtship, and much of the novel seems to expound on tenets of progressive feminism. Martin's spare prose occasionally even poses as poetry; the rhythms of Mirabelle's life are slowed down, parsed, and dissected day by day, with the occasional pithy punchline evenly pacing the simple story. The book is sentimental, but reasonably so, its portrait of frayed love depicted with a degree of desperation, sweetness, and familiarity that further confirms Martin's observational talents. Shopgirl's pressing sadness possesses a doomed fairytale quality that Martin rarely abandons for an easy joke. His incisive depiction of romance as a treacherous mix of isolation and strategy demonstrates great restraint and care, its confidence and nuance indicating that it's probably time for him to try a novel.