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Mean Martin Manning by Scott Stein

March 22, 2007 Philadelphia City PaperMMM_coverA.gif

Mean Martin Manning

By Scott Stein

ENC Press, 207 pp., $15

Reviewed by Edward Pettit

If Franz Kafka were funny, if, while down at his local pub in Prague, he had fired off one witty, sarcastic rejoinder after another about the absurdity of the world, then he would have written a novel like Scott Stein's Mean Martin Manning.

For the past 30 years, fed up with the idiocy of the world around him, Manning has locked himself into his apartment. He has neither left his rooms nor spoken to a single human being. Television and the Internet have satisfied his mental diet. Salami, cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches have been his chief bodily sustenance. Manning has created a little oasis of comfort in which he pads around all day in slippers and a bathrobe. He no longer owns any other articles of clothing.

Of course, the world comes crashing in (literally) when a social caseworker, Alice Pitney, learns of Manning's lifestyle and vows to "cure" him, to help him "realize his full potential." What follows is a romp through an absurdist America from trial — in which Manning, as a belligerent but witty Josef K zings his contempt onto the proceedings — to rehabilitation with a cast of other loonies whom Pitney is also "helping."

Manning narrates his story as a first-rate smart-ass, taking aim at a society that shoves health and happiness down its citizens' throats as if the true meaning of life could be found in uncooked vegetables and self-help programs, when we all know what we really need is salami and pro wrestling. Scott Stein has written a perfect book for Philadelphians who are having trouble coming to grips with government-decreed bans of trans fats and even the slightest whiff of tobacco smoke. In fact, smoking was the only pleasurable vice I missed in this gem of book.

Mean Martin Manning is a kind of manifesto for those fed up with the health-and-well-being nazis of all stripes, telling others what they should or shouldn't do. The enforcement of civility. No junk food. Eat right. Exercise. Realize your potential. These are the commands of a parent to a child, not the wise legislation of political leaders. So, what happens when bureaucrats become stern parents? Those not in power become petulant children, just waiting for Mom and Dad to turn their backs so they can snatch a treat from the cookie jar or smoke a cigarette out behind the shed. Here lies the deeper problem of a health-obsessed society, which Stein's novel addresses: the infantilization of adults.

As the novel progresses, Manning becomes less like Kafka's Josef K and more like Anthony Burgess' Alex, whom society wishes to turn into the perfect clockwork orange, seemingly ripe on the outside, but mechanically precise on the inside. And where's the fun in that? Manning revolts against this new system that's supposed to make him a better human being and draws up his list of those who need a comeuppance. The scary part of it all is that Stein's novel is no dystopian vision of a distant future. The time is now. Guard your salami and mayonnaise. Mean Martin Manning for President!

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    The Philadelphia Inquirer reviews Mean Martin Manning today. I'd characterize the review as, at best, lukewarm — that is, the reviewer did say that he enjoyed it, but also had a few quibbles with the novel and didn't have the...

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