Mailman by J Robert Lennon

Going postal with misdirected men
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The Independent Culture

Maybe it's revenge for all those delayed cheques and mislaid proofs, but postmen tend to be morally dubious figures in fiction. J Robert Lennon's Albert Lippincott drinks less than Charles Bukowski's Henry Chinaski, and has less luck with women, but this doesn't stop him being a disturbing figure.

Ever since he was caught masturbating in the bathtub by his mother at 11, he has had a difficult relationship with sexuality. Almost every woman he meets is suspicious of him. There's Kelly Vireo, a "customer" on his postal route who (rightly) suspects him of reading her mail. Or the librarian who catches him accessing a digital picture of the "hot nerd of the month": a woman wearing only cateye specs and running shoes, sprawled in a tangle of Star Wars sheets, fellating an acne-scarred computer geek. The possibility of Lippincott "going postal" is an ever-present danger, not least because it has happened before, when he bit a former teacher in the eye.

At first, Mailman seems almost as deranged as its protagonist. In clumpy prose, somewhere between John Updike and Nicholson Baker, Lennon pumps out sheer unfocused misanthropic bile. Funny sequences and characters keep the pace going, with neat ironic reversals, such as when Lippincott's attempt to get rid of his cat leads to him meeting a cat-lover, having sex with her and later, after her death, ending up with her four felines.

Slowly the narrative voice gathers momentum. Aside from his sexual neuroses, Lippincott also has a problem with authority, but Lennon rigs it so the bosses, teachers, parents, nurses and policemen are so unsympathetic that his extreme actions seem sane responses to an insane world. He has a shoplifting mother, a distant scientist father and a slightly slutty sister. She claims she has to have sex with directors to get cast in plays, but seems more interested in the details of this transaction than the results.

Eventually, it all becomes too much for Mailman, and after an abortive sexual tryst with his sister (she freaks out when she discovers a cancerous lump on his chest), he returns to his parents' house and attempts to take his life before the disease gets him. This prompts a long surreal section in which Lippincott's frail mind gives way to the demons of his imagination. Lippincott becomes a strange sort of everyman, his pain an exorcism of everything frustrating about failure in modern America. As the psychiatrist who visits him both in reality and imagination asks him, "What can be expected of a single person anyway?"

This question Lennon makes relevant to the art of writing. What, he implies, should you expect from a novel aside from one man's life depicted in exhaustive detail? Although I felt depressed when I finished Mailman, I recognised this was because Lennon had done his job well, revealing the endless sadness of everyday life.

Matt Thorne's 'Child Star' is published by Weidenfeld