In his earlier novels, like The Light of Falling Stars (1997) and The Funnies (1999), J. Robert Lennon portrays characters who are emotionally out of sorts and who are forced by events to realize that life is filled with disappointments and miscues but that, nevertheless, the world goes on. Lennon’s novel Mailman pursues the same themes, and the author’s point is made more overtly and poignantly here than in any of his earlier works.
Albert Lippincott is a fifty-seven-year-old postal carrier whose life seems to have sunk below pathos into self-destructive misery. He is divorced from Lenore, the true love of his life. The one woman with whom he has a relationship after his divorce, Semma, is killed in an accident. Albert has distant, strained relationships with his older sister and parents and is full of rage and doubts. He finds himself unable to tolerate the cats left in his care by his dead lover. His life is one-dimensional; he is entirely defined by his job as a postman in the small town of Nestor, to such a degree that the narrative refers to him throughout the novel as “Mailman” far more often than it does as “Albert.”
Albert’s days vacillate between strict ordering of thought and repetition of actions. He indulges in rage against other drivers and too much popcorn in motion-picture theaters, performing his duty rigorously and then violating the most sacred codes of his profession. Although he strives for an orderly and carefully regimented life with minimal disruptions, he almost instinctively realizes that his life is silently and slowly spinning beyond his control. In retreat from a confrontation that threatens to reveal his secret self to the world, Albert fantasizes that he becomes “cracked open” and that his heart rips itself forth from his chest. He runs home, feeling the “heart howling after him,” and eventually locks himself in his house, in fear of his own heart: “Please help me, his lips are saying, but there is nothing here to help, there is only his heart, pulsing like an alien outside the window, trying to break in, to find the bloody hole it came out of.”
Albert’s isolation and inability to communicate with the world is further emphasized by his one method of touching other lives: Often he reads the mail of his postal patrons before delivering it to them, late. Even then, Albert realizes that he is not truly reaching out to others. He understands that “They weren’t his friends, these correspondents.” He does not “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 characters in a book: but no, not even that. They were nothing but their own myths of themselves.”
Albert shuffles through the motions of his absurdly habitual existence, day by day, until one of his patrons, Jared Sprain, commits suicide. Albert is then forced to rush a borrowed letter into Jared’s box late at night, but he is discovered by Jared’s angry young neighbor Kelly Vireo. At the same time a painful lump begins to rise under his arm, and although Albert wants to believe that a broken rib causes the lump, he suspects worse. Before long, Vireo’s complaints have landed him in trouble with his manager, Len Ronk, and the postal inspectors. Beset on every side, Albert’s carefully regimented life threatens to come tumbling down. In a sense, the lump under his arm, which grows larger and more painful throughout the novel, serves as a physical manifestation of his emotional discontent and bitterness.
Although Albert seems not to believe any fabricated myth of himself, Lennon makes references to Homer’s myth-laden epic the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) throughoutMailman, and it is worthy of notice that Lennon lives in Ithaca, New York, a city named after Odysseus’s island home. Nestor, for example, is a character in the Odyssey; the reader learns that, as a student, Albert once argued with a teacher over the role of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, in the epic...
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