Monday, December 12, 2011

Interview with Man Martin

Man Martin lives in Georgia and teaches high school, but his second novel, Paradise Dogs features Floridian Adam Newman, an alcoholic who, despite his sweet young fiancĂ©e Lily, can’t quite let go of his ex-wife Evelyn. Amid his plots to get Evelyn back, Adam is trying to figure out who is buying up land in central Florida, and for what nefarious purpose. Along the way, he delivers a baby, provides marriage counseling, and helps his son write obituaries. I loved this book—perhaps my favorite so far this year—and I was thrilled when Martin agreed to an interview.

I’ll start with the obvious to get it out of the way. “Adam Newman” and “Evelyn” owned “Paradise Dogs” in the past, but have since lost it. Can you elaborate on why you chose the Edenic imagery? Can Adam hope for salvation, or just make the best of the situation he has gotten himself into? Finally, how does Lily fit into all of this?

At some point when I began writing about a hotdog restaurant, I discovered the restaurant itself would never appear, that it would have closed before the opening pages of the book. Once I knew this, I realized I was dealing with a post-Edenic story, that the characters would be striving to return to a perfect world they could never get back to, and which perhaps never existed.  Then I just had a ball coming up with names. Adam and Evelyn, of course, and their last name, Newman means “New Man.”  Addison means Adam’s son, and Kean is a sort of Anagram for Cain. Lily Manzana’s first name resembles Lilith and her last name is Spanish for “apple.”  They’re to be married by Father Peel, completing the forbidden fruit theme.  Finally, my favorite name of all, Wriggly Adder, is a name that means wiggly snake.  There’s a few other allusions like that running through the story, but I don’t think a reader needs them to enjoy the book. It’s just an author having fun, although the theme is about trying to return to a lost “Paradise.”

Adam seems to have the gift of stepping into any role and playing it perfectly. Why is he such a failure, then, at his own life? Or would you question my characterizing him as a failure?

               Adam is definitely a failure at his own life, and yet he has a magical knack for fixing other people’s problems, almost always in the guise of someone he is not.  He never sets out to pose as someone he isn’t; circumstances seem to put him in that position, and he just goes along with it.  I really don’t know why this is, except that in the early stages of writing I realized Adam was the sort of person who could solve anyone’s problems but his own.  Maybe Adam is a miracle worker only as long as it’s in the service of another person, or maybe it’s only when he’s acting in the moment, without a grand scheme for the future. Maybe it’s because if he never got anything right – even if only by accident – the situation would just be too terrible to bear.  Seeing him pull a rabbit out of his hat every time he comes across someone else’s predicament makes it funnier – and more frustrating – when he’s such a wrecking ball in his own life.

Adam seems to bear a literary kinship to Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. Was this novel one of your influences as you set out to write this story? What were some of the others? 

Absolutely – I had that book very much in mind; it’s one of my favorites.  Both stories feature lunatic antiheroes who somehow create order out of chaos.  I hope, of course, Paradise Dogs is more than a rehash of Toole’s farce.  For starters, there’s the Biblical allegory you’ve already mentioned, and I think Adam has a more problematic and interesting backstory than Ignatius, and lastly, there’s the Disney connection.  In this book I also had in mind Fraser’s Flashman series, a despicable rogue who always seems to be on the spot as history is made. Lastly and most significantly, perhaps, I wanted to catch the spirit of P G Wodehouse’s hilarious romps, which always seemed to feature two or three tangled love stories plus some missing jewelry thrown in for good measure.

You were pretty convincing in describing Opoyo; are you yourself an Opoyo believer?

Yes.  The concept was given to me by Stephanie “J S” Buskirk, who once ran a highly eclectic reading series in Atlanta called Info Demo.  She conjectured that the universe is filled with this invisible substance, which is completely undetectable except insofar as it has the power to distort any communication passing through it, the way a glass of water refracts the image of a pencil inside it.  The only way to overcome the effects of Opoyul, she believed, was to communicate slightly off, never say exactly what you mean but always speak through some misdirection or metaphor to compensate for the Opoyul’s distorting influence.  It is sad to say that J S Buskirk did not live to see this book in print, but I think she’d be gratified to know her notion achieved some degree of immortality and amused that I had misheard her, that it is not Opoyo but Opoyul, a misunderstanding that confirms the existence of Opoyul itself!

Addison has a pretty cynical outlook on life, until the end of the book, when, in his “imagination he seemed to hear the grinding of gears of a deus ex machina lowering Zeus onto the stage to tidy up all the loose ends: unsatisfactory in fiction, perhaps, but extraordinarily gratifying when it occurs in real life.” Is Adam really The Amazing Adam Newman? Is there some other “deus” at work here? Or is the reader just being bamboozled (because here it is actually pretty satisfying in fiction, and it rarely if ever happens in real life, because life doesn’t just stop unscrolling at the happy place)?

What a freaking brilliant question.  If there were a Hall of Fame for Freaking Brilliant Questions, this one would be in the main gallery. 
Adam and Addison have a periodic discussion about what makes a proper story.  Addison says that since life basically sucks and in the end you die, stories should reflect this.  A story with a happy ending, Addison says, is like being lied to.  Adam agrees that life is sucky and ends only in death, but that’s exactly the reason he feels stories have to have happy endings.  We need stories to give us what life does not.  Paradise Dogs, itself, of course, reveals what the author thinks is the best ending of the story.  In true Man Martin fashion, I eat my cake and have it, too.  In one sense Adam and Addison get their happy endings, and they are as improbable and zany as anything in a Jerry Lewis movie or Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.  The diamonds are recovered, Adam’s fortune is restored, he’s about to get married, and Addison is about to kiss the girl.  But as you point out, life doesn’t stop “unscrolling,” and it only takes a moment’s consideration to realize the ending is not as happy as it seems.  Adam is not marrying Evelyn, but Lily, and he is essentially signing up to be a “pretend husband” in the way he’s already been a pretend doctor, lawyer, and priest.  Adam is an alcoholic and a pretty damn serious one – one of the last things he does in the book is steal the communion wine and drink it – his condition can only get worse.  Disney’s arrival, although it gives Adam a temporary financial reprieve, will prove catastrophic to the natural beauty of the region – a beauty Adam already mourns from previous “squalid” developments such as the destruction of the Old Courthouse.  Within the sadness of Disney’s arrival is another sadness, because Disney’s dream – as megalomaniacal as it may be – never comes true, and Disney does not live to see his new “world” created.  And as for Addison’s kissing Kathleen, her last words are, “This is a mistake,” and it is a mistake.  Addison’s brother is still at home locked in the bathroom.  Whatever the future holds for Kathleen and Addison’s romance, there’s bound to be some difficult and unpleasant times ahead between the two brothers.

There are several romantic relationships in the novel, and the characters have varying views on what makes a successful relationship, from “Praise Jesus” to Kathleen and Kean’s doing things next to each other, but not with each other. In your opinion, which of the relationships in the novel is the most successful, and what makes a marriage really work? Will Adam and Lily stay together?

The relationship for which I hold out the most hope is Johnny, Janey, and little Bateman.  They seem devoted to each other and their relationship is complicated by nothing worse than irritating in-laws and poverty.  If you play those cards right, those sorts of problems end up making you closer.  I hope Kathleen and Addison make a go of it, but I don’t know.  The fun and easy part of a relationship is that first kiss – actually the moment just before that first kiss.  Things get difficult when you start dealing with leaky pipes and grocery bills.  Adam will stay married to Lily and she’ll be there for the nasty ending that awaits chronic alcoholics.  As far as what makes a marriage work, what little I know I learned from my own father, himself an alcoholic, on whom Adam was partly based.  For all his faults, and they were large and numerous, Dad never stinted on telling people he loved them.  I have learned this lesson and practice it assiduously.  Each day, and several times a day, I tell my wife I love her.  I mean it, too, but one or both of us might be apt to forget it without the daily reminder.  We have been married thirty-one years next July.  Let not one day pass without remembering to be grateful for her.

More than any other passage, this one sums up the book for me:  “There was absolutely no reasonable pretext for leaving the hospital, and Addison knew this. All responsibility, common sense, and self-preservation were on the side of staying.  On the side of going was only his father’s request. ‘Okay,’ he said.”  Why does doing the absolutely wrong thing so often turn out to be the right thing to do?

Ha!  I don’t know.  Could it really be something as corny as following your heart?  I don’t know, and I don’t recommend you try this at home.  If an alcoholic offers to drive, you’re better off walking. Still.  Sometimes the wiser answer is on the side of love, not reason.  “The heart has reasons that reason knows not.”

How did you get to be so funny?

Thank you for saying I am.  Maybe the best answer was given by Steve Martin who said every morning he put a sliced tomato in each shoe.  That way, he said, “as soon as I get dressed, I feel funny.”

Article first published as Interview: Man Martin, Author of Paradise Dogs on Blogcritics.

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