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Little: Mailman)

Bentley LITTLE: The Mailman (1991)

Review by Michael Edwards - also appears on Amazon.com

Appears on Amazon.com:
    Date: 13 May, 2000
    Rating: 4/5
    Heading: Fairly convincing, but (like life) doesn't always make sense.

      So far I have read only three of Little's novels - The Store, The Mailman, and The Ignored - but I think I'm beginning to see a pattern to his work: a community of some sort that, to begin with, appears quite cosy and friendly, and some entity from outside - the chain store or the new mailman, in two of these three novels - intrudes, and gradually begins to subvert the people's way of life and destroy their sense of community. (The Ignored doesn't quite fit this pattern.)
      Things start to go wrong. It's only little things to begin with, which hardly attract anyone's attention; but, as time goes on, these little things that are not quite right get bigger and bigger. People increasingly show signs of unease and anger, but they seem to partly acclimatize to the new order of things, a little like the proverbial frog that, if heated in water slowly enough, boils to death instead of leaping out of the warming water.
      This may account for why people don't take the action one would normally expect, such as going to higher authorities about obviously wrong things, if the local authorities won't act - or, if they do try to appeal to higher authority, they seem to give up quickly after hitting the first bureaucratic obstacles. This lack of action in the face of trouble is a point that this and other books by Little may be criticized for. Indeed, characters seem to rationalize the events, thinking up reasons why things are not so wrong after all, and saying the strange events are just a coincidence - but they can't accept this entirely, and seem to dissipate their fear by lashing out at each other, instead of following up with higher authorities; this gets bad enough to rip the entire community to warring pieces. Little does mention the malaise that sweeps over the entire town of Willis, so the possible criticism about not doing enough about things does not seem entirely justified; I think Little was aware of this, and made it an intrinsic part of the plot. He appears to depict characters as accepting this as part of the new status quo and not doing as much about it as you might expect, as if the very fabric of reality has changed, and perhaps he deliberately used this to create a surreal atmosphere as the society he's writing about gradually decays.
      Little seems to construct his whole story around a very specialized situation - the sinister mailman - and builds up as much as possible on aspects of the mailman's work or attributes. The mail service (in its increasingly twisted manifestation) seems to be a microcosm around which the whole story revolves - quite effectively, I think. The whole weird scenario is on the whole fairly convincing, although perhaps some of the more bizarre elements towards the end of the novel creak a little, as if the limits of the edifice are strained a little too far.
      I think the elements that hint at a supernatural influence - that is, unexplained strange events which definitely violate laws of nature - sometimes seem a little less convincing, but it didn't stop me reading on with interest. It is probably far more difficult to write a story where the supernatural mingles with the ordinary, than to write a story which right from the start is frankly based on supernatural premises. But I couldn't help wondering if the story might have been a little better if the author had left out events of this sort, but developed every possible horrific aspect of the mailman's activities to the hilt.
      What about the problem that the mailman apparently has no motive for his actions? Well, looked at in isolation, many of his acts seem to make no sense whatsoever - but if you look at it overall, it seems to me that he was an embodiment of evil: everything he did was designed to put fear into people, to divide them from each other, to turn them against one another. He appeared at times to be a psychic vampire who lived off the emotional energy of other people's fear or pain or suffering. But he was also a mailman, and apparently nothing but a mailman, who embodied the spirit or essence of the postal service (a postal service gone wrong), but appeared to do nothing other than postal work - so he could only use the mail to wreak his evil.
      And so it was appropriate and quite logical that the people of Willis turned his techniques against him, and used the mail to destroy him - and indeed, because he appeared to be nothing more than a mailman, this probably would have been the only way they could destroy him.
      The book does have a lot of loose ends, and fails to explain many bizarre things - perhaps rather more than I would like. But I suspect that's just the way Little writes, and perhaps he intends to illustrate the fact that in real life things are not usually resolved neatly, with all loose ends tied up. Perhaps he's telling us that evil itself ultimately doesn't make sense. Personally I prefer a bit more explanation, and I think it is just brilliant when someone like Dean Koontz is able to build up a truly weird situation (see The House of Thunder, Sole Survivor, or Lightning), and milks every drop of suspense and fear out of it - but at the end he is able to give a completely satisfactory and convincing explanation for everything that's happened.
      In this I feel that Little is a bit behind Koontz - but that is perhaps only a matter of taste. With a few reservations, I think Little has portrayed his basically improbable situation quite convincingly, and the book certainly keeps you reading, which is a fairly stiff test for a good novel.

      By the way, Bentley Little's short story "The Mailman" is not related to this novel, beyond the general idea of someone having a pathological phobia of a particular mailman. But it would appear likely that the short story, which preceded the novel by a few years, provided inspiration of a general sort for the novel.

Michael Edwards,
Victoria, Australia.

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Original text copyright (C) 2000, by Michael Edwards.

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last modified on Monday, 24 September, 2001.