What if? The question is frequently within the purview of speculative fiction and the long philosophical treatise. What if the question were employed in the aid of serrated social commentary disguised as a hilarious journey from hermit to unwilling and uncontrollable ward of the state? Scott Stein, with Mean Martin Manning has done just that.
While the protagonist protests his situation as a “sham of a mockery,” the reader easily follows the plot as it winds through the absurd, to the clever, to the sometimes too plausible and concludes with eerie parallels that are in many instances, too close to home. The hard-nosed, back bench, true strict constructionist of the United States Constitution will alternately laugh – many times out loud – and cringe at Martin Manning’s capricious fate as a resident in a “Life Improvement Zone” declared by executive order. He or she will also arrive at the end of the book with a sigh and a statement in line with: “I get it.”
Scott Stein makes his deepest cut with the development of the antagonist Alice Pitney as a foil for Martin Manning. She is a conglomerate of the practitioners and lieutenants of the nanny society, and she follows the protagonist from doorstep to nightmare with all of the diligence one would expect from a person “here to help.” While her roles are vaguely defined by necessity, the craft in building Martin Manning allows her versatility and bloody-minded helpfulness to give more than a few belly laughs and raise some classical liberal hackles.
Martin Manning begins the book locked in his apartment across the hall from a neighbor he judges to be “nuts.” The situation reverses when Alice Pitney arrives at his door as his caseworker. A flash-bang grenade and home invasion later, courtesy of nameless and faceless officers of the state, and Manning is on his way to the hospital, court, group therapy and state control. And each movement is marked with wit and sharp observations.
Most compelling is the state of denial in which Manning thrives. Not only is he fighting off accusations and embarrassing personal revelations, he is incapable of grasping how the world outside his apartment has changed to the point where crotchety hermit-like behavior is grounds for the loss of individual liberties. The metaphor is easy to grasp, but not preachy. The fact that Stein allows his characters to work through the competing interests with a light touch and almost non-existent narrative editorial is a compliment to his skill, but also an assertion of his clarity of idea and confidence in the reader. Not to say his narrator, Manning, is at a loss for words, but that each scene offers context that suits them.
The pace is quick and the reader is spared the intellectual convulsions heaped on the protagonist. With a healthy dose of laughter, often audible in my case, Mean Martin Manning is also fun. And while Scott Stein isn’t proselytizing for an ideology, he does give the reader a chance to pause and draw comparisons between his protagonist and individuality in contemporary life. All of these elements tie together. And for a final thought, I get it.
Scott Stein. Mean Martin Manning. ENC Press, Hoboken New Jersey, 2007.pp. 207. $17.95
- bus and subway fares
- my new watch broke
- health insurance
- one month past due on credit card bill
- now I'm out of money
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Per Contra Spring 2007