by J. Robert Lennon
(Norton) $24.95

Mailman begins with the creation of the earth, and ends with a lengthy near-death experience during which key female characters recite speeches in iambic hexameter. Sandwiched between these metaphysical episodes are 400-odd pages in the disturbed life of Mailman, who also goes by the less portentous name Albert Lippincott. He delivers mail in Nestor, a small college town where he studies physics, until a breakdown--and an attempt to bite his professor in mid-lecture--sends him to the mental hospital. All this has the affected weirdness characteristic of a lot of the fiction you find in McSweeney's, where J. Robert Lennon has been published. Sometimes it's sharp and refreshing, and sometimes it's grating.

For a bad book, Mailman is extremely readable. Lennon writes in present tense, which occasionally results in some unfortunate syntax--"Cop reaches down and plucks from Mailman's hand the camera"--but the complicated story (covering Mailman's midlife crisis, with frequent and deft dips into the past to survey his family, lovers, and his botched careers in college and the Peace Corps) moves well. But it's tiring. Mailman is a predictable sort of crank who throws jabs at things like SUVs, bumper stickers, and teenagers who, like, phrase statements as questions?

"The important thing," Chekhov wrote, "is not to humiliate people." Fiction wouldn't be much fun if all writers adhered to this rule, but it comes to mind when a manic episode sends Mailman screaming down the street, when a cat repeatedly urinates on his furniture, and when his mother barges in on him masturbating and breaks his nose with a punch when Mailman confesses to her that he was thinking of his sister.

Mailman is a fairly accomplished failure--it's competently written--but Lennon is too eager to sacrifice character and plot to his tepid attempts at black comedy. And what for? Another indictment of popular American culture? What with the glut of similar books available, you wonder why Lennon bothered.

J. Robert Lennon reads Wed Sept 24 at Zeitgeist (171 S Jackson St, 624-6600), 7 pm, free.