Scott Stein's satirical novel Mean Martin Manning (ENC Press) is about a reclusive man who retired early from a career in advertising and has spent a couple of decades holed up in his apartment, subsisting largely on salami-and-cheese sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise, watching TV, shopping online for frog figurines, and minding his own business. Martin Manning's domestic idyll is rudely interrupted by Caseworker Alice Pitney, an unflappably condescending social worker determined to help him improve himself—and empowered by the government to do so under an experimental program.
Stein, who helps run a writing program at Philadelphia's Drexel University, has been promoting this quirky tale through several tongue-in-cheek websites, including Alice Pitney's blog (alicepitney.blogspot.com) and Martin Manning for President (mmm4prez.com). He spoke with Senior Editor Jacob Sullum in August.
Q: Your book is a funny, entertaining story that happens to have political themes, as opposed to a heavy-handed ideological lesson that tries to be entertaining. Did you set out to write a political novel?
A: I didn't. I set out to tell a story about this character and his situation. So when I came up with Martin Manning, the question was, "This guy hasn't left his apartment in decades. What would test him? What if someone tried to get him to leave his apartment?" I thought, "Who would try to get him out?" And I came up with Caseworker Alice Pitney. The more ridiculous and aggressive she became, the more obviously it became a novel about your right to be left alone and your right to do things that aren't good for you.
Q: Is Martin Manning a misanthrope or just an eccentric?
A: I don't think he has anything against the concept of people. He's not theoretically opposed to them. He doesn't want to be messed with. So maybe eccentric is the right word.
I thought people would react ambivalently toward him, that they'd only begrudgingly support him, because he's prickly, and he's not getting with the program. But the response I've gotten from readers so far is that they all root for him. Pretty early on they think, "He's not bothering anyone. Leave him alone."
Q: Much of the paternalism skewered in Mean Martin Manning is food-related. Not so long ago, critics of the anti-smoking movement would say, "Today it's cigarettes; tomorrow it could be French fries." To which the standard response was, "Don't be silly!" Today the government is desperately seeking ways to cajole, tax, and regulate us into better eating habits. Is it hard to write satire in a world that gets sillier every day?
A: It can be really tough. You write something you think is ludicrous, that everyone will know is a joke, and a few weeks later something like it is on the news.
Q: Alice Pitney has a blog, and she occasionally shows up in the comment threads on Hit & Run, reason's blog, praising trans fat bans, condemning Big Dairy, and opining on the obligation to be happy. How does she make time for all this online activity when she's helping to run the governor's presidential campaign?
A: She's really committed to the cause. She's a true believer.
Q: Would Martin Manning make a better president than Ron Paul?
A: I hate to say, he's got about the same chance of being elected. I think he'd make a terrible candidate. I don't see him kissing babies. I don't know what Martin Manning's stance is on the gold standard.
Q: What would be his appeal for people who prefer mustard to mayonnaise?
A: I think the people who really like mustard are not going to like his position on mustard. But he won't force them to eat mayonnaise, and that's the great thing about Martin Manning.