J. Robert Lennon’s fourth novel is an epic of contemporary America seen through the eyes of the eponymous Mailman, a postman who takes his job very seriously, but also a neurotic lower-middle-class American man (male / man!) handicapped by his autobiography. The tensions between these two identities, and the double life they necessitate on the part of the central character, are deftly handled, as we see the world primarily through one perspective but are continually, uneasily reminded throughout the novel of the shadowy presence of the other. And this is a long, absorbing novel, sometimes disturbing in its analysis of a particular practitioner of contemporary American habits.
Mailman is Albert Lippincott, who semi-obsessively relates to us through interior monologues and extended narrational turns his life history, his world view, his oddball understanding of what is normal, and his combined professional sense of duty and self-importance. Mailman shares some characteristics with other great mavericks of modern American fiction, combining elements of John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly, Joseph Heller’s Yossarian and Thomas Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas into a new figure of American paranoia. Mailman is however distinctively comic in his construction and tragic in his outlook, a product of the world he comes to condemn, and Lennon’s style is wholly his own, confident in its handling of its themes, at once persuasively meandering in its detail and assured in its ultimate direction.
Mailman lives in Nestor, New York, and delivers mail daily to its residents, whose most intimate secrets are of course divulged in their mail. How and why he accesses this information, where he puts it and what he does with it, constitute a significant part of the narrative, but Mailman is much more concerned with establishing and mapping out the causes of its hero’s chronic anomie, and with suggesting this as a diagnosis of contemporary American cultural myopia.
Mailman himself comes to epitomise the small-town values (insularity, self- righteousness, an inviolable sense of his own correctness, tempered by sometimes painful insecurity and anxiety alongside a continually resurgent inferiority complex) that have made him what he is. The dynamic tensions between these aspects of his character, and between his past lives and his current activities, provide much of the allure of this powerful novel. J. Robert Lennon has created a character with whom we can sympathise and against whom, simultaneously, we must protest. Mailman has enough depth and complexity of character to allow his narrative to be convincing, and enough self-blindness to be worryingly realistic. Early in the novel we are told of his nervous breakdown and the theory that initiated it:
The theory (as far as he can remember now) was that everything small was a mirror of something large and everything large a mirror of something small, that the world that could not be seen because it was tiny was the same as the world that could not be seen for its hugeness: and human beings were the fulcrum of the scale of the universe; before civilisation they were far enough away from the large and the small to render each invisible, but with the dawn of civilisation exactly close enough to the large and small to make both out.
The theory serves to locate Mailman’s sometimes psychotic take on the world in egomaniacal psychological terms, even as it offers an allegorical possibility for the novel itself, in which the (tiny) individual clearly mirrors the (immense) social and vice versa. Mailman’s double life offers a penetrating critique of American social hypocrisy, embroiled in its own weird narrative, reluctant to respond to much outside of itself, and forced, eventually, to go on the run in search of escape from itself and the world it has made.
During a chapter entitled The Postman of Uchqubat’ Mailman relates to us his disastrous sojourn in Kazakhstan (the first attempt to escape), ostensibly to help set up a postal service to contribute to the country’s reconstruction post-Soviet Union. What becomes apparent, though, is that Mailman’s very remembering of this period in his life depends heavily on it containing one of his sexual relationships, the narratives of which offer some kind of structure to his otherwise sprawling self-analyses. Narrative descriptions of local Kazakh colour fade in relation to his brief romance with Marsha, although the horrific resolution of this episode lends further force to Mailman‘s tragic potential.
Mailman’s emphasis on his sexual history develops out of the broad theme that orchestrates Lennon’s writing in this novel, which is to do with communication between people. To understate matters somewhat, Albert Lippincott finds communication difficult in ways for which only his persona as Mailman can compensate him. The novel plays all manner of games with the potential that the mail system offers in terms of communication as a symbolic representation of human society itself.
One of many rants that punctuate the novel rails against linguistic and typographic standards in his local newspaper: “Words, letters used to matter: which ones you chose to print or say. Not anymore: everybody sounds like everybody else, they’re all using the same vocabulary they got from television advertising.” Later, trouble with a schoolteacher leads to confusion between faked love letters and faked grades: “‘You wrote those letters.’ Youwrote them! You wrote them in your gradebook!’” Marsha leaves a note to finish their relationship, and his wife terminates their marriage following instructions in a book called Just Say It, which is precisely what Mailman, as narrator and performer of his own life, can’t quite bring himself to do. “It is all—isn’t it?—mail”, he concludes. But not, we might add, his mail.
Mailman is a compelling read, a dense and enthralling indictment of a culture on the brink of moral implosion, redeemed only to the extent that it can say, with Mailman himself, “I love life. I love it”, in the face of its own relentless failure to love life enough.
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