Mailman by J Robert Lennon

Going postal with life's no-hopers
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The US Postal Service is an employer of last resort, a home for the otherwise unusable. That's because of the terminally uninteresting nature of the work, which drives many of the workers mad - "going postal" has entered popular parlance as shorthand for a mail operative running amok with an automatic weapon.

Perhaps the most famous postie in American fiction is Hank Chinaski, Charles Bukowski's free-thinking and free-drinking alter ego in Post Office. Now there's a new sack-wielding madman on the block. Albert Lippincott nurses a more tightly wound and discreet insanity. Mailman (his underachieving job serves as his label for most of the novel) does his rounds in Nestor, a quiet university town in New York State. He arrived to study science nearly three decades back and his downward mobility started with a spectacular nervous breakdown, in the course of which he made menacing teeth movements towards a lecturer's eyeballs. Apart from a brief, disastrous spell in the Peace Corps spent failing to set up a mail service in Kazakhstan, he's been stuck in the Postal Service ever since.

Nothing much happens in Nestor so it seems an ideal environment for Mailman, who cannot be numbered among life's copers. Looking after a cat, for example, is beyond him. Stable adults pass unwanted felines on to friends or ring animal welfare charities. Mailman's perverse solution is to dump his pet out of town and hope that it can't find its way home (it does: he forgets to snip its address tag from its collar). Inability to rise to routine challenges does not stop Mailman actively courting disaster to give himself more to worry about. In particular, he cannot control a compulsion to open other people's mail - a problem, given his occupation - and to set his mental gyroscope spinning with fears of detection.

Mailman's off-kilter consciousness is constructed by Lennon with impressive subtlety and depth. His prose is up-beat and brisk, a reflection of Mailman's doomed determination to anchor himself in the world of healthy normality.

It is tempting to think of Mailman as an American everyman, too self-absorbed to care much about the bigger picture. While it is true that the ambient suffocation of small-town America stunts the faculties required to look beyond its confines, Mailman isn't quite a successor to the anti-heroes of Updike. His neurasthenia is too singular for that, so he is more a tragi-comic portent of what we might become if track and bogies diverge. In the meantime, his expulsion from the town library is a salutary warning of the hazards of clutching a flesh-coloured deodorant stick under a desk in a public place.

Lennon has been a writer to watch for a while, with three promising books under his belt before this. Mailman marks his coming of age as a novelist. It is an outstanding work and deserves widespread acclaim.