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Thursday, Nov. 18, 2004 08:45 am

Winged messenger: Going postal with Terry Pratchett

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Going Postal By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins 377 pages, $24.95.

Please allow me to introduce Mr. Moist von Lipwig, hero of Going Postal, Terry Pratchett's latest novel in his Discworld series. But before we go any further, a confession: I am a Pratchett latecomer. More people read him than voted for George W. Bush (this may be a stretch, but it's my review). More than 35 million copies of his 40-plus books have been sold. Where have I been? Suffice it to say that for the past day I've been lost in the pages of a laugh-out-loud magic-carpet ride of a book -- ridiculously sensational, yet serious stuff. Whew! If, like me, you haven't experienced the ride that is Pratchett, fasten your seatbelt. You're in for a funny ride.

Picture a Gilbert and Sullivan play starring Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, with the other characters cast by Mark Twain and J.R.R. Tolkien, and you will have a feel for the novel's tone. We meet our hero on his way to the gallows. A con artist of some repute (mostly bad), Moist has met his match in the person of Lord Vetinari, supreme ruler of Ankh-Morpork. Where, you may be asking, is Ankh-Morpork? Had I read the 29 previous Discworld novels, I might be able to tell you, but in the end, geography has no real meaning here. It is the nether reaches of a man's spirit that Pratchett wants to explore, and he couldn't have invented a character with more nethers to reach than Moist. But I digress.

Everyone, even slow readers, knows that if you begin your story by killing off your hero, you will have a very short story and make readers who have paid for a novel unhappy. Pratchett solves this dilemma by having Vetinari spare Moist for an important assignment: serving as Ankh-Morpork's postmaster general. In an effort to ensure that the reprieved doesn't light out for the territories, he is issued your standard golem (Hebrew for "superhuman"). Think Mr. T on steroids. Stuck between a rope and a hard place, Moist decides there must be some way in which he can turn the post-office gig into a shell game, and he acquiesces to his fate.

The postal service has suffered neglect, lots and lots of neglect. Unsent letters litter every space of the once-grand building now adorned with the motto NEITHER RAIN NOR SNOW NOR GLO M OF NI T, the missing letters having been pilfered. Its two remaining employees are an old man named Groat, keen on postal regulations, and his assistant, an avid pin collector (a.k.a. pinhead). Polluted by years of pigeon guano and made obsolete by its rival, the Grand Trunk communications conglomerate (imagine J.K. Rowling's version of the Internet), the postal service needs a savior. Enter Moist.

There are no heroes without villains, and Pratchett dishes his up with aplomb. Reacher Gilt masterminds the Grand Trunk from, where else, Tump Towers. His cronies include werewolves and the occasional banshee. Readers who must have a heroine will find Miss Goodheart, though not your average lady in distress, more than serviceable. The plot proceeds at breakneck speed. To say more would spoil the fun.

How to classify Going Postal? I can't call it science fiction because I don't like science fiction, and I loved this book. Truth be told, I don't like fantasy much, either. Smart-aleck that I am, I could call it satire, but that doesn't entirely pin things down. Now it comes to me: To classify Pratchett would be like netting and mounting a butterfly. You know what species you've got, but in the classifying you've killed something of its beauty. It no longer flies. At one point in the novel, Groat tells Moist that "angel" is just another word for "messenger." Pratchett's prose may not be angelic, but it has wings. I urge you to book your flight now.

Tonight at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18, Robert McGregor, professor of history at the University of Illinois at Springfield, will deliver "Accused of Literature: Terry Pratchett," the first lecture in the John Holtz Memorial Lecture Series, in the UIS Public Affairs Center, Conference Room G. The lecture is free to the public; a reception hosted by the Friends of Brookens Library will follow the presentation.