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’.

Mailman belongs to an American tradition that sees the mail as an almost sacred process of federal communion. The USPS’s grand symbolic purpose, as framed by founding legislation, is ‘to bind the nation together through the personal, educational, literary and business correspondence of the people’. In The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa Maas discovers, or thinks she discovers, an underground postal system called W.A.S.T.E., apparently operated by a conspiracy of alienated carriers, cloaked riders and shadowy European aristocrats. At this point, in down-at-heel urban California, Pynchon seems to hit a new seam, abandoning the hyper-intelligent satirical pantomime, the novel’s dominant mode, for something more like sincerity: ‘For here were God knows how many citizens, de-liberately choosing not to communicate by US Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery.’ Another, sillier example is Kevin Costner’s dire and bloated vanity movie The Postman. Over the course of three hours of hallucinatory badness, Costner’s Shakespeare-spouting drifter reunites the scattered communities of post-apocalypse America by convincing them that the national postal system has started up again. This gives the people hope. At one point, a grateful young woman gasps to Costner: ‘You’re a Godsend, a saviour.’ ‘No,’ he replies, ‘I’m just the postman.’ Postal systems are, despite Costner’s best efforts, an interesting form of association: with the end of apartheid, South Africa was welcomed back not just into the comity of nations, but also into the international postal community. In an American context, it is an arcane form of the compulsive need to conceptualise the nation. The first chapter of this novel is entitled ‘An American Mailman’; putting his ear to Albert and the USPS, Lennon picks up the low hum of the invisible republic.

Like the eavesdropping couple in John Cheever’s ‘The Enormous Radio’, Mailman is a psychic receiver for the secrets of those around him. His precious archive of photocopied mail, built up over many years of invading his customers’ privacy, is the main reason for his emotional attachment to the job. Mailman works in Nestor, an upstate New York college town very like Ithaca. Every day, he indulges the ‘thrill of unwrapping without destroying, of removing without offending, of seeing without being seen’. It is June 2000: there is, as yet, no anthrax to be delivered. Mailman knows that the future of snooping belongs to the IT man: ‘penmanship is dead and email is king. Damn the powers that be and their manifest destinies!’ For the time being, however, he continues to take a complicated and not entirely pleasurable satisfaction in reading other people’s letters:

They weren’t his friends, these correspondents . . . He didn’t know them, only their penmanship, their habits of punctuation. He knew their saddest, most confessional selves: the lech, the slut, the delinquent. The stalker, the nut. Like the characters in a book: but no, not even that. They were nothing but their own myths of themselves, shambling golems moulded together out of fear, out of self-loathing and arrogance and delusion and lust. And animated by a stamp.

His life is approaching a crisis. Various menaces are converging. Jared Sprain, a depressed customer, commits suicide before Mailman can deliver a comforting letter from a friend, temporarily diverted for examination. Kelly Vireo, another unhinged customer, seems to suspect Mailman of ‘doing something bad’ with his customers’ post. Meanwhile, the postal inspectors, the USPS’s ‘cabal of regulatory enforcers’, are lurking behind two-way mirrors at the PO, scoping the workplace for infringements. And a lump develops on Mailman’s torso, producing a traumatic hallucination of his heart tearing itself from his chest and pursuing him down the street, ‘to find the bloody hole it came out of’.

However, the current crisis is only one in a life of crises – as the reader, propelled at high speed back and forth through time, from chamber to chamber of Mailman’s pitiful emotional life, soon discovers. Recently, there is a girlfriend who died. Further back, a promising university physics career, ended by a manic episode (Mailman is struck by ‘the idea’ – a universal theory which ‘would divide the age of incomprehension from the age of understanding’ – with such force that, proclaiming ‘I am the vessel,’ he attempts to bite his despised supervisor’s eyes out). There is the ensuing marriage to his psychiatric nurse, which failed. A trip to Kazakhstan with the Peace Corps, where Mailman is soon reduced to a nervous wreck, lying in the snow, kicking the ground and pounding it with his fists. Each set-piece, the mournful echo of a comic routine, leaves Mailman sprawling on the ground, or victimised by a teacher, or branded a pervert by the local librarian, or crying over the cereals in the grocery store. Every time, the punchline is Poor Mailman! Finally, he journeys down to ‘hollow and parodic’ Florida, where his strange parents live in retirement. In the process, we are given an inversion of the Frank Capra vision of America: the little guy’s discovery, ultimately, is that he is truly insignificant, and truly alone. ‘I don’t have a story,’ Mailman tells another suicidal character, a Florida pensioner. ‘I mean my life, it’s no story. It’s all fouled up. I tried to do a lot of things and they didn’t work out. That’s all.’

In response, Mailman rages, mostly inwardly, but sometimes outwardly, against the world around him. Most of the invective is directed against what business people would call low-hanging fruit – easy, juicy targets. Mailman’s insufferable counsellor Gary Garrity, for example: ‘Always his concern. That solicitous nod. That knowing frown.’ Or bumper stickers: ‘They shout their opinions into the void because they’re afraid someone will hear them.’ Or Maurice Renault, Nestor’s pretentious New Age popular physics guru: ‘Out came the cigarettes (in a silver case!: this was 1961, for the love of Pete, the silver case was deader than Vaudeville), and he would stand there placidly smoking, and you could see the thought-bubbles forming over his head, filled with self-satisfied Gallic thoughts.’ Mailman’s thoughts, spinning in futile analytical mania, are relayed in long, motor-mouthed sentences, teeming with ideas, exclamation marks and italics:

The Nestor types walk by: tall shaggies in natural fibres with babies on their chests or backs or shoulders but never in strollers or carriages with all the accoutrements; stout blondes (these the native upstaters) without chins, fed on potatoes and cheese and barbequed chicken; the Asians from NY Tech with incomprehensible English slogans on their tee shirts (FRIENDLY AMAZING!, GO FOR IT STYLE); the monied and not very smart Nestor College kids, girls with big boobs, boys with long too-neat necks; the skinny old professors; the limpers and ticcers; the narrow-nosed moustached (but never bearded) tiny-eyed day labourers: he wonders if it’s in his head or do people really fall into types? If you were to make a three-dimensional chart, along three axes (say, body shape, facial features and colouring), and place a point for every person in Nestor, would the distribution be random?

At its best, as here, Lennon’s language is kinetic and unpretentious, bulging with mimetic enthusiasm, relying on the accretion of rhythm and detail rather than striking turns of phrase. His casual, slapped-on metaphors are often funny and apposite. Mailman thinks of his cat as a ‘shitting bauble’, sees a ‘stick-on smile like a DO NOT DISTURB sign’ on a majorette. While crazily confronting an innocent member of the public, he finds that his face is ‘steaming like a pie’. But Lennon has a tendency to overplay his conceits. Here is Albert leaving the mental ward: ‘The physical world was as he’d remembered: not quite adequate: the sky and trees inscrutable, filled with secrets.’ This line, at least one clause too long, is freighted with a promise it never delivers. After surprising the reader with Albert’s unusual perspective (elegantly introducing the unexpected question of the world’s physical adequacy), there is a palpable falling-off: the sentence loses itself in repetition and the brochure-language trill of ‘filled with secrets’. Mailman could easily be a hundred pages shorter than it is.

Still, it is a generous novel with some outstanding and funny individual scenes. It is also a grand achievement in terms of narrative organisation. Lennon develops an intricate pattern of overlapping themes: communication and voyeurism, isolation and responsibility. Albert’s life is developed as a case-study of mail-based transgressions, leading inexorably from the first forged letter, through the obsession with other people’s mail, to the closing net of the USPS investigation. His love-life is an anthology of one-way missives: one woman can only give love, not receive it; another can only receive his love, not reciprocate. Along the way, his happiness is lost in the post. Mailman’s grandiose delusions sometimes make him feel personally to blame for public accidents. At the other extreme, he entertains gloomy thoughts about his own littleness and the ‘interchangeability’ of all postal carriers. All these threads are brought together in the impressive final sequence, a vision which risks ridicule, and justifies that risk, producing a redemptive epiphany to Mailman’s life of frustration and disappointment: ‘It is all – isn’t it? – mail. Every particle, every force, every emotion; every thought, every object, every impulse, has its destination. Every datum is addressed with the name of its beloved: the pheromone finds its receptor, the dog roots out its bone, the sentence seeks the period at its end: and it is all mail.’

In the end, though, Mailman feels substantial but weightless. It runs a little too smoothly down the predicted grooves, so the world of the novel doesn’t entirely convince. Lennon relies too much on the shopping list of incident and attitude of which most alienation dramas seem to be constructed: encounters with an unimaginative, unsympathetic boss, a sullen counter girl, faceless agents of the state, the usual types of media inanity. Madness looks too much like photogenic gesture, eccentricity like mannerism, rage like whimsy. As the long sentences, the lists and the extended flights of fancy portend, this is a novel which comes out of the McSweeney’s school. This, and its familiarity, blunt Mailman’s satirical edge, and deaden some of the reader’s responses. As a ranter, Albert has nothing on the great, excessive commentators from the fictional lunatic fringe – such as Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, scribbling indictments in his bedroom against his mother, his employers, TV dance shows, homosexuals, Protestants, the 20th century.

But while Mailman’s cute, pre-digested feel is a weakness, it also, to a certain extent, makes the point Lennon wants to make. A more brilliant and trenchant book might not have achieved the same pathos. Where it flounders as satire, it scores as a character study: the novel’s excesses, and its weaknesses, are Albert’s. For all his energy and his ideas and his life, Mailman fails in his rebellion against the recalcitrant, remorseless world around him – he hardly makes a dent in it. His criticisms don’t reveal or change anything: ‘It all felt silly now, all the things he despised about America: hit radio, 200-foot parking setbacks, vegetarians, bottled products in decorative boxes, the brash ugliness of the flag, obesity, baseball caps.’ In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey had his holy madman Randle McMurphy die for our sins – in the true hippie style, he cleanses the doors of perception, revealing a deadly, repressive society. By contrast, Albert Lippincott is martyred ingloriously, by insensitive management techniques, vacuous consumerism and dumb bumper stickers. Poor Mailman!