(reviewed by Jenny Dressel MAR 9, 2004)
Just for the record, I love my mailman. Paul is the most pleasant mailman I've ever had. and I'm not an easy customer. I belong to a bunch of mail order book clubs, contribute to Amazon on a regular basis, and during the holidays, most of my shopping is done through the internet, because parking at the mall pisses me off.
That stated, J. Robert Lennon's new novel, Mailman is about a different sort of postal worker (I think). Albert Lippincott, Lennon's mailman, seems to me a cross between Jim Carey in "The Cable Guy" and Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind."
We meet Albert, who calls himself Mailman, on Friday June 2, 2000. He has been happily delivering Nestor, New York's mail for close to thirty years. Mailman is 57 years old, divorced, and living in a cottage with a bunch of cats. The United States Post Office is his life, and he performs his job well.
"He drives a Ford Escort hatchback from the days when Ford was a joke. but it is not his real car; his real car is his mail truck, parked at the new main P.O., which is four miles from here, on the edge of town. He experiences a brief frisson thinking about the truck, about slipping into its duct-taped-mended leather bucket seat and sliding his hands over its oversized steering wheel; he imagines the letters he'll fill it with and the secrets they harbor, and his mood lifts accordingly."
Thirty- some years ago, Albert was a promising student of physics at NYTech, the nearby college. He had a serious breakdown, and ended up in the mental ward of the hospital. After he was released, he started courting the nurse who cared for him, and eventually married her.
Lennon's Mailman, told in the first person, is a week of Albert Lippincott's life. Albert is in a bit of a crisis -- he has a bad habit of stealing his customers' personal mail and reading it. He always delivers it eventually -- but he thinks the postal inspectors are onto him. This episode of paranoia causes Albert to examine and review his life, and we are given a glimpse of how this man's mind works.
Through Albert's thoughts and flashbacks, we get a picture of a boy who grew up in a strange, terribly dysfunctional family; was a brilliant student until the breakdown, and joined the Peace Corps at 50. He volunteered to go to Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union to start the mail system in that country.
Does it sound as if I'm rambling? Yes, well, I probably am - I just spent a significant amount of time in Albert Lippincott's mind! This guy's mind sifts through details and thoughts like sand through a strainer. No decisions come easily to him, and if he forgets his morning ritual -- "chewing 20 grains of raw brown rice and analyzing yesterday's mistakes with his eyes closed" -- his day is shot. He is the epitome of a paradox. On the one hand, he does attempt to make spontaneous decisions, but then he will spend hours and hours contemplating and analyzing his actions. His process of going through "What if?" can be painful at times, even for the reader. At times, I found myself exclaiming, "Okay, mistake noted. Get on with it, Albert!" - yes, I really was talking to a character in a book!
Lennox's novel is darkly hilarious. Albert is mentally unstable when we meet him, but I also found him quite endearing. There were times when I found the book hard to read, but that was because this author had Albert Lippincott's character down to a tee. It was Mailman's mind and thoughts that were choppy or rambling, and I think Lennon did a wonderful job of portraying that.
This was a brilliant novel, and I enjoyed it as much as I enjoy Dave Eggers, Susan Choi, and Matt Ruff. These new writers are taking serious risks, and coming up with prose and characters that are original and liberating. While some may not like it, I think it is fantastic and look very much forward to seeing more of it in the future.
By the way, I still love my mailman, Paul, but now will always wonder what's going on in his mind.
- Amazon readers rating: from 18 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Light of the Falling Stars (1997)
- The Funnies (1999)
- On the Night Plain (2001)
- Mailman (2003)
- Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Stories, 100 Songs (2005)
- Castle (2009)
- The Great Zombini (2011)
- Familiar (October 2012)
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- The official website for J. Robert Lennon
- Squirrel, as short story published on Identity Theory
- PopMatters review of Mailman
- Bookslut review of Mailman
- The New York Times review of Castle
- His Futile Perceptions review of Castle
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About the Author:
J. Robert Lennon grew up in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. After completing his BA in English at the University of Pennsylvania he went on a creative writing course at the University of Montana. His first novel, The Light of Falling Stars stemmed from a recurring childhood dream about an air crash. It went on to win the 1997 Barnes and Noble Discover Great Writers Award. His stories have appeared in McSweeney's and The New Yorker.
He lives in Ithaca, New York with his wife and son.