[ bookreviews ]
Surely the postal service can't be the repository of all the crazed, lonely misfits that popular culture chooses to populate it with? To assume that one public service can draw a greater number of oddballs than any other not only negates the law of averages, it also focuses on the unhinged few who publicly tarnish the reputation of the many. Equally, J Robert Lennon's tale about a failed academic who attempts to bite out the eyes of his lecturer before descending into a life of reading other peoples' mail, has to be an overblown fiction, a warped fabrication born from the myth of "going postal" - first coined when Pat Sherrill swapped his mail sack for a shotgun back in 1986. All a quasi-epistolary make-believe, right?
One quick phone poll of three ex-posties later and the resistance to stereotype has become kitten weak. Tales of psychotic sorters ranting the platitudes of all the customers on their round, stories of squirrel chases in seven-ton post vans, open discussions about the near psychic ability to detect birthday cards containing folding cash...
Okay, so it's bizarro central. An institution full of weirdos, misfits and the generally cracked. If J Robert Lennon does nothing else with Mailman, he's managed to capture the essence of what it's like to have to deal with the public day after day without one iota of authority over anyone you meet. You're a public servant minus even the simple deference anxiety most people exhibit towards nurses. No wonder a select few go so far off the rails that they effectively become an entirely new mode of transport.
Albert Lippincott, the titular hero of the piece, is just such a man. Adrift in the middle years of his life he looks to the routine of his mail round to create a scaffold upon which to hang his unraveling life. His relationship to the work is complex. On the one hand he loves the fringe benefits - the challenge of opening and resealing other peoples' mail, an innocent affinity with his mail truck and the joy of travel this brings... Conversely, he can't escape the fact that he's fallen into a cul-de-sac career as a result of never really fulfilling his full potential.
Then, of course, there's the public, the real thorn in his side. Between engaging him in futile games of chess, pickling his brain with puerile banter and threatening to blow the whistle on his mail-reading activities they combine to strengthen his general distrust of humanity as a whole. To Lennon's credit he has created a character who becomes the embodiment of all our daily gripes and whinges. Mailman rants at the glib, invasive opinions of bumper stickers, he bemoans the wasteful over-engineering of US sports utility vehicles, he speaks out where others would cower and back down. As such, Lennon creates a small town American hero who sits uncomfortably within the mould constructed for him by the author, an outsider, an eccentric who provides the perfect vantage point from which to peer down into the heart of domestic American life, and death.
The central leitmotif for this inspection is a camera that Lippincott wins during a radio phone-in competition - a device of capture that ironically comes to represents a sense of release for our underdog lead. Through its viewfinder, Mailman begins to record seemingly random oddities of his adopted hometown of Nestor. But beneath all the cursory, snapshot impressions rise increasing waves of memory and suppressed emotion. As if flicking through a mnemonic photo album, we experience domestic scenes from his totally dysfunctional family life - his borderline Asperger's father, his puritanical lush of a mother, his incest-charged sister - before moving on to explore the even weirder elements of his life. Repeatedly we find ourselves hopping up and down the book's timeline exploring Mailman's transient mental illness, the romance that blossoms with one of the secure unit's nurses and then his abortive attempt to join the Peace Corps and reform the postal system of Kazakhstan. Each event is a twisted slab of mishap, disappointment and, ultimately, a display of a deep-rooted desire to find connection. Eventually, all these elements combine and conspire to generate a truly Job-like wringer that Lennon then proceeds to shove his unfortunate character through. It's a rigorous trial by calamity and one that Lennon initially carries you through thanks to an unfaltering ability to create a solid and endearing character. The problem is, there's simply no let-up. Lippincott/Mailman fails or is thwarted at everything he attempts. His wife leaves him, his next girlfriend is run down and killed by a car, his one break for freedom via the Peace Corps ends unceremoniously in the discovery of the rotting corpse of the local postmaster... Against such odds only a stoicism of heroic proportions could possibly detract from the increasing sense of futility. But Mailman, like the majority of us, simply isn't made of the stuff of heroes. As perspectives move from past experience to current quandary, the reader, in turn, shifts from a desire to help, towards laughable disbelief that one man can remain so resolute about such an unsuccessful approach to life. And so, by the time this lock-down of ambition comes full circle, and Mailman is propelled back to the damaged bosom of his family home, you find your capacity to care greatly diminished. You've admired Lennon's ability to create a totally credible character, you've laughed at him - Mailman that is - you've rooted for him, egged him on and yet his refusal to change, his choice to flee rather than confront, leaves you spent and marginally cynical. If we were being forgiving, we could write this resistance down to a pertinent observation about the alterations brought with advancing years. At 55, Mailman is obviously entering that odd mental environ where laying down new neural pathways becomes a battle of will over biology - a theme that's wonderfully consolidated when he returns to his geriatric parents' home. But for all its pin sharp scrutiny, the pervading sense remains one of despair. By the closing pages of the book the picture is one of a confused man holding yet another shitty, badly-dealt hand and wondering if the apparitions he's witnessing are the product of a mind swamped with analgesics or some form of divine intervention. There is a sliver of hope buried somewhere in there, but it's of the clever-clever open variety that does little to assuage the overall gloom.
As a book, Mailman is an uncertain entity. Human self-doubt jostles alongside the natural wonders of life caught even in the most mundane - a beatific moment with a cereal box, the epiphany of a flung majorette's baton glinting in the sun... It's also a misleading book, being more about one man called Albert Lippencott than the profession he has chosen to pursue. And yet, the nature of this profession remains central to the piece with the notion that everything in our information age can be quantified in the idea of sending and receiving. Which is something, despite the wearing journey of his central character, that Lennon repeatedly delivers on.