J. Robert Lennon C’92’s latest novel, Mailman, is a darkly comic epic about Albert Lippincott, a postal worker in upstate New York with an unfortunate compulsion: He reads and photocopies other people’s letters. The story takes off when a customer commits suicide before Mailman can return a “borrowed” missive that might have saved him. During the adventures that follow, Mailman is forced to consider the meaning of his own messed-up life. Gazette associate editor Susan Frith talked with Lennon about the book in a phone interview last November from his home in Ithaca, New York:
Albert Lippincott, the Mailman of this story, is an unlikely hero. If you were asked to give a character reference—an honest character reference —to someone about Mailman, what would you tell them?
I would say he is extremely moral, though his moral system is personal and a little bit dissimilar from the average. And he certainly is efficient. He has an intensity necessary for a high-pressure job, if not the emotional stability. That said, I probably wouldn’t hire him.
How did you do the research for this book? Did you spend much time in the company of mailmen?
I did a bunch of interviews and toured the post office and wrote down all the jargon, and my local letter carriers were extremely helpful. They were the first ones to get copies of the book.
Were people cooperative in talking with you?
In general—I’ve had to do a little research for all my novels—people always want to talk about their jobs, because it’s rare for someone to say to them, “Tell me about your job.” [To research the notorious postal inspectors], I interviewed a union steward at the post office, and he told me a few horror stories. He said, “Whatever you want to make up about these guys, they’ve done worse.”
What kind of reaction have you gotten from your letter carriers?
The ones who have commented on it have done so in order to say they like it. I think in general they feel I’m on their side, that it was a fairly accurate portrait, if a little over the top, of what it’s like to be a mailman.
This is your fourth novel. Does it get easier?
It only gets harder. It should get harder. You assume your standards are going up.
Despite Mailman’s mental instability, he does offer an insightful commentary about the world around him.
There aren’t really any “political protest moments”—I think I simply channeled my political frustrations into the novel, and into the character. I do have Mailman listening to the radio and having derisive thoughts about the 2000 election, but mostly he just feels powerless, impotent, touchy, and under-appreciated for his strengths, which in my opinion is the state of the American voter—even more now than in 2000. I’m trying to subtly encapsulate an era with the emotional fabric of the book.