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Three Books in Brief: "Mailman," "Annie Dunne," and "Sparrow Nights" (New York Times Book Review)

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By Emily Gordon

By J. Robert Lennon.
Norton, $24.95.

You probably don't know your mail carrier, but he or she knows you. In J. Robert Lennon's fourth novel, we meet 57-year-old Albert Lippincott—a k a Mailman—and it is clear that he is intimately familiar with everyone on his route: he knows their handwriting, their habits, their skin magazines and in many cases the contents of their letters. Albert, a former physics student and onetime mental patient, has a penchant for opening people's mail and learning, for instance, of the impending suicide of a young painter. Albert lives in the New York college town of Nestor, one of Lennon's many ingenious references to Homer's "Odyssey." Albert's travels take him not just around his district but to a Peace Corps stint in Kazakhstan, to New York City (home of his dramatic older sister, Gillian) and to suburban Florida, where his parents live and whose beaches end up being a kind of Ithaca for Albert at the novel's dreamy, decidedly unworkaday end. Yet Albert is no classical hero; his are the Pyrrhic battles against bureaucracy, the limitations of the imagination, the self-betraying body and the difficulties in finding love. Lennon's Brodkeyesque sensual memory, his artful wordplay and the many startlingly hilarious moments of sweetness—respites from Albert's often bleak adventures— make Lennon's novel both intricate and mesmerizing.

Sunday, September 15, 2002


BYLINE: By Emily Gordon

In the Irish writer Sebastian Barry's new novel ANNIE DUNNE (Viking, $24.95), human beings remain a mystery to each other even when they share a life, a home, even a bed. It is the late 1950's, and Annie Dunne and Sarah Cullen are cousins in their 60's who work a small farm together in County Wicklow.

Neither has ever married—Annie has a hump on her back and never had suitors—and the two have forged a symbiotic bond in their mutual need for survival. The farm demands their attention from daybreak to dusk, and they don't see much of other people—until one summer when Annie's great-niece and great-nephew come to stay while their parents look for work in London. The children delight Annie, filling her with youthful energy. They confound her, too; they play strange games that aren't altogether innocent, and their impulsiveness disrupts Annie and Sarah's spartan routine. Further disruption comes in the form of Billy Kerr, a local laborer who comes to call on Sarah too often for Annie's taste. Billy is a dark and complex character, but Barry's real triumph is Annie, who lives a quiet life set to "the small music of the hens" but inside churns and rages like a waterfall. "Annie Dunne" suspends rural Ireland in a time when women still make their own butter and cars are only just becoming common. Barry is also a playwright, and his dialogue is clear and musical. But it's Annie's passionate observations and shifting moods—rendered in dense prose that's close to poetry—that fuel this fine novel.

GRAPHIC: Drawing (Judith Wilde)

May 26, 2002 Sunday


Postcoital Aesthete

BYLINE: By Emily Gordon

Darius Halloway, an urbane professor of French literature at a Toronto college, knows he's struck gold in Emma Carpenter, his young, unpredictable and sexually ravenous lover. She's as much trouble as she is a joy, but when she finally leaves him, he's stunned: what can matter now that Emma's gone? The Canadian writer David Gilmour's new novel, SPARROW NIGHTS (Counterpoint, $24), is a chronicle of erotic obsession after the fact, a grown-up version of Scott Spencer's "Endless Love."

We barely know Emma herself; she appears in flashback vignettes, potty-mouthed and inscrutable. It's Darius's rampaging mind that really interests Gilmour, who creates a professor simultaneously prim and outrageous. Without Emma, his nerves are raw, and everything starts to bother him: the incessant flapping of a German flag raised by his next-door neighbor, another's barking dogs, a noisy air conditioner in a Caribbean hotel. He lectures, chats with students and goes out to dinner (on what seems to be a remarkably lavish academic salary), but inside he's roiling with pain. It's not long before he acts on his annoyances, as well as his pent-up desire: he begins to frequent seedy massage parlors, whose employees become part of his life in ways therapeutic and—at the book's end—sinister. Gilmour's prose has flashes of bright metaphor, and his dialogue is alert and alive. Darius is a believable aesthete—he's consumed with status, the impression he's making and the gnawing power of the past.

GRAPHIC: Drawing (Helen Grohmann)

Sunday, September 14, 2003

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