November 2003

Jessa Crispin

fiction

Mailman by J. Robert Lennon

In an interview, author J. Robert Lennon said he based his latest creation on his own mailman. The man would curse, bang on his mailbox, and implied he knew what was in the contents of Lennon's letters. In search of the true thoughts behind this strange man, Lennon has created an unforgettable character and a haunting novel. Mailman is set in Nestor, a college town near the Finger Lakes of New York. The protagonist, mostly referred to as Mailman but named Albert Lippincott, is not fond of his hometown, as is made immediately clear. "But if the Finger Lakes are the handprint of the Creator (never mind, for now, the implications of a seven-fingered God), then this one, Onteo Lake, the longest and deepest, is the middle finger." Albert hates everything about Nestor, its college, its inhabitants, the Nestorfest, the man who sells him his coffee. The only thing he does not hate is his job. But instead of just delivering the mail, he also reads it. He takes whatever looks interesting, steams it open, and photocopies it before delivering it. He has entire room in his apartment devoted to this process and file cabinets full of private letters. No one suspects a thing until a man on Albert's route kills himself. Albert had not yet delivered one of the man's letters he had intercepted, and sneak in the middle of the night to slip it into his mailbox. A neighbor catches him, and she begins to wonder if he's the reason some of her mail looks particularly roughed up.

Albert panics when the authorities are called not just because of the fear of losing a job. Salary concerns and having to look for another job aren't the first things to come to mind. He's scared of losing his job because his job is who he is. Albert is not just a mailman; he is Mailman. He wraps his identity into his job and his routine. When forced to start taking Saturdays off to fulfill his accumulated vacation time, he panics at the thought of all that unplanned time. He schedules his days to finest detail, including an elaborate morning routine. He wakes every morning with his eyes still closed, a trick he learned from a friend who was in Vietnam. He counts out twenty grains of raw brown rice from a container by the bed and chews them while he considers his previous day's mistakes. If he opens his eyes before the brown rice routine, he chastises himself. But every since the suicide, he's been flubbing his routine. He tries desperately to hold it together, but that only makes it worse. He agonizes over choosing the ideal pastry at the coffee shop. He nearly attacks a woman for using the pay phone he wanted to use to enter a radio contest. In an effort to get his life together again, he begins to reflect on all his perceived mistakes, going as far back as to his childhood.

It seems he never really wanted to be a mailman. He studied physics in college before a nervous breakdown caused Albert to allegedly attack his professor. (He claims he opened his mouth so that his professor's wisdom could flow from his eyes into Albert's mouth; the professor claims Albert tried to bite out his eyes.) Kept on suicide watch at the hospital, Albert lost everything. He had to drop out of school, his mother accused him of embarrassing her, and his roommates rented out his room. After his release, he started living with Lenore, a nurse who worked in the psychiatric ward, probably only to escape moving in with his parents. She cared for him after his breakdown, causing him to confuse gratitude with love, and she was in a bad relationship looking for a way out. After the authorities question Albert about the woman who reported him, he beats himself up for not being able to make the marriage with Lenore work. If only he were still with Lenore, he wouldn't need to steal the mail. If only he could get her back, his life would be okay again.

Even though Albert examines every facet of his life, he still has little self-knowledge. He wonders why his relationships fail, but won't confront the chilly relationship he has with his unfaithful mother, nor the incestuous relationship with his older sister. He blames the professor for accusing him of assault while refusing to admit what he had was a breakdown. The night he went to return the stolen mail, he hallucinated seeing his heart outside of his body. He runs from it. Each tragic event in his life seems to be an opportunity for Albert to self-reflect and get his life back on track. Every time, however, he points the finger elsewhere and looks for the easy way out. What happens to Albert at the conclusion seems to be the only logical ending, even if at first it angered me. Albert lived in terror of his own life.

All of this could be a tedious read if the book were not written with such affection and humor. Albert is not written as a pitiful character. The reader sympathizes with him, but is also fond of him. He wants love and to love, but he has no idea how to do so. Even the small town of Nestor -- a setting ripe for an author to either fill the town with characters who obsessively collect things or say enigmatic, crazy things or to insert a life lesson that can only be learned in the town's wholesome landscape -- has charm. Lennon does a remarkable job making his characters and setting three dimensional. Mailman is one of the best books I've read all year. Mailman by J. Robert Lennon
W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393057313
448 Pages