Steaming like a Pie

Theo Tait

  • Mailman by J. Robert Lennon
    Granta, 483 pp, £15.99, October 2003, ISBN 1 86207 625 1

In 1986, a postal employee in Edmond, Oklahoma ran amok with a gun, shooting 14 co-workers dead and wounding six others before killing himself. Nearly twenty similar incidents occurred at American post offices during the 1980s and 1990s, though on a smaller scale. As a result ‘going postal’ came to be used as a synonym for a berserk outburst of violence. Charles Bukowski’s butch, squalid autobiographical novel Post Office (1971) gives some idea of how this might have come about: ‘It was 12 hours a night, plus supervisors, plus clerks, plus the fact that you could hardly breathe in that pack of flesh, plus stale baked food in the “non-profit” cafeteria.’ Since then, the US Postal Service has tried to improve the tense, demoralising working atmosphere, and to reduce the pressures on staff: the long, hard shifts; the paramilitary management style; the labyrinthine grievance and disciplinary procedures. Potentially violent employees are watched and treated carefully (a fair number of ex-military join the USPS). Being a ‘postal carrier’, to use the current term, is one of the most sought-after blue-collar jobs in America, secure and relatively well-paid. Postal employees are no more likely to be assaulted by their colleagues than anyone else; statistically speaking, ‘going postal’ is a myth. Yet it’s a durable myth, the idea of the mailman as walking time-bomb: a cartoon version of what Philip Roth called ‘the indigenous American berserk’.

The hero of J. Robert Lennon’s fourth novel is a postal carrier, a loner in late middle age, moderately disgruntled, deranged to an uncertain extent – raising concerns that he will storm his place of work with a shotgun before the novel is through. But Albert Lippincott is, at heart, more tremulous than homicidal, a schlemiel rather than a militiaman. Mailman takes the figure of the put-upon, wound-up postman in a more mythic direction: beginning with the creation of the world and ending with a vision of the afterlife, Lennon gives us the mailman as totem. Albert is referred to as ‘Mailman’ throughout the novel, even when he is a child. He is ‘never quite comfortable out of uniform: civilian clothes make him feel like he is wearing another man.’ He is an emblem for a way of life dominated by communications and the lack of them – by the visions and distortions of the mass media, the isolation of city living, the frayed connections within unhappy families.

For many people, the post is not just an everyday public service, but a repository for inchoate hopes and dreams: ‘For some reason I have never lost faith,’ writes the narrator of Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up!, ‘not since I was a young child, in the power of letters to transform my existence . . . there is the white envelope, that glorious rectangle of pure possibility which has even shown itself, on some occasions, to be nothing less than the threshold of a new world.’ For Lennon, the mail also has a systemic, quasi-mystical thrill. When posting a forged letter, an act of revenge on a teacher who has humiliated him, the young Mailman senses ‘the moral force . . . the utter finality of mailing a letter’, and is filled ‘quite instantly, with a yen for the irreversible power of the mail system’.

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