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Pushing the envelope

Mailman: A Novel; J. Robert Lennon; W.W. Norton: 488 pp., $24.95

October 12, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

"Going postal," meaning to fly into a murderous rage, has become part of the American lexicon, and from the beginning of J. Robert Lennon's black-comic novel about an upstate New York letter carrier, we expect him to do just that. It isn't as if Albert Lippincott hasn't flipped out before. While studying physics in college, he was hospitalized after a manic episode in which, convinced that he had stumbled upon the greatest insight since Einstein's Theory of Relativity, he tried to bite out a professor's eye. Even now, at 57, he has quirks and antisocial tendencies -- like steaming open and reading other people's mail.

But the author of the 1997 novel "The Light of Falling Stars" subverts our expectations. Lennon has larger, subtler plans for Lippincott than just a moment of mayhem. He turns him into an off-kilter Everyman whose longings and frustrations resonate with us after our laughter fades. "Mailman" zigs back to recount Lippincott's past -- his semi-incestuous relationship with his actress sister, Gillian; his doomed marriage to his psychiatric nurse, Lenore; public embarrassments; abortive love affairs; and misguided career moves, including a nightmarish stint with the Peace Corps in post-Soviet Kazakhstan -- even as it zags forward to a few summer days in Nestor, N.Y., when his life (still a life, a routine, an adjustment, however unsatisfactory) falls apart.

The trouble begins when an artist on Lippincott's mail route commits suicide. Lippincott has stolen (and damaged and kept for several days) a letter written to the artist by a friend trying to cheer him up. By intercepting the letter for his own voyeuristic pleasure, is Lippincott in effect guilty of murder? Trying to make partial amends, he slips the letter into a pouch claiming accidental damage by the Postal Service and "delivers" it to the artist's apartment in the middle of the night. But when he bangs on a balky mailbox, he is observed by a young woman whose previous complaint to his boss, Len Ronk, about Lippincott's erratic behavior prompted Ronk to order Lippincott to undergo anger-management counseling. Now the woman's complaints have more serious repercussions. Lippincott is hauled in for questioning by Postal Service inspectors who would have felt right at home in the KGB. Panicked, he flees.

What kind of man is Lippincott? He doesn't think people are all that much smarter than he is, but he's aware on some level that he gets in his own way. "He pictures himself ... walking down an open road, free and clear as far as he can see, and then suddenly there's something in his path: a head, a giant head, his head, it's scowling and old, and hot to the touch. He tries to dodge, but the head is quick, it ratchets from side to side, it tilts and nudges and mutters, 'Back, back.' He throws himself into the head and feels its enormous nose punch his chest. Ow! And then he realizes that his growth is smarting and he pats his pockets for his pills."

He's a man, in short, whose often understandable feelings and valid observations of himself and society are always going over the top, to crazy extremes, and thereby invalidating themselves. This is the source of Lennon's comedy. Lippincott, a grotesque figure, believes himself to be surrounded by other grotesques, though in saner moments he wonders if only he sees them that way. In Kazakhstan (where he dreams of reforming the mail service but finds the post office in his assigned village closed, the postmaster's corpse inside eaten by rats and nobody caring), the outer world confirms his mental state. But at home, he can't ever be sure.

Oh yes, the growth. Lippincott has a painful lump under his arm. As he drives to Manhattan, then to Florida, seeking refuge with the histrionic Gillian, then with his aged and emotionally unavailable parents, he loses his appetite, vomits, swallows codeine pills by the fistful. Eventually he is diagnosed with cancer. Hunted, he feels, by everyone and betrayed by his own body, he huddles alone in a swamp, where he.... Does he go postal at last? Think of the unexpected ending of the film "American Beauty." Lennon offers us the same kind of provocation.

Whether what may be Lippincott's final vision -- which includes his former wife and girlfriends singing of him in iambic hexameter -- is truly a glimpse of the Great Beyond or only a drug hallucination, it puts his "failed" life, and ours too, in a stimulating new perspective.

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