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A very revealing sequence occurs about 160 or so pages into J Robert Lennon's magnificent fourth novel, Mailman. Albert Lippincott, the eponymous, anal, postal worker, finds himself regularly tasked with delivering mail to Maurice Renault, his old physics tutor. "As often as not, Renault", who is by then a celebrity egghead, "met Mailman at the front door, always friendly" but in three years he never "seemed to recognise him".

Not recalling an old student is, arguably, fairly understandable but in Lippincott's case it's surprising; he once attempted to bite (yes, bite) Renault's eyes out in a lecture theatre. It's the kind of incident, even with the passing of a number of years, which would make a face a little difficult to forget. And yet clad in his uniform, Lippincott is all but invisible. As far as Renault, or anyone else in Nester, New York, is concerned he's just the Mailman; a point Lennon enunciates, beautifully, by addressing him simply as "Mailman" throughout the book. Those who rely on him for their post are blissfully ignorant of his troubled history: the breakdown at university, the failed marriage and romantic affairs, his latently incestuous relationship with Gillian, his sister, the addiction to pornography and the downright, peculiar circumstances that led to him being (erroneously, as it happens) accused of exposing himself in a public library. He, on the other hand, knows everything about their lives because he habitually, steals and reads their correspondence.

Lippincott is, as the brief catalogue of his woes and predilections above hints, not especially likeable--Postman Pat he certainly isn't. He does have a cat (four in total, actually). None of them, however, are black and white and one he abandons on waste ground miles from home; he later holds a fraudulent funeral to put an inquisitive girlfriend off the scent. His caustic, self-pitying ruminations on failure, love, his parents and small town American life, all bumper-stickered Volvos and glad-handing mayors, never quite hit the venomous existentialism of, say, Frederick Exley in A Fan's Notes, but there's a strain of good old-fashioned male alienation to his world view. Lennon joins Pynchon and Bukowski, in delivering a truly affecting, bleakly comic epic from the protean travails of a pitifully screwed up letter carrier. --Travis Elborough

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