In recent years, the term "going postal" has come to mean going into your place of work and killing your co-workers. It doesn't matter what line of work it's in, the names the same. People don't "go clerical", or "go educational" they "go postal".

Its even become a joke of sorts. Dennis Leary has joked about what he'd do to prevent such things if he was a supervisor at the Post Office. But real people died. The following murders are to blame for this reputation for violence that the postal workers of America have been painted with.

Curtis Collins in 1980, Perry Smith in 1983, and Thomas McIlvane in 1993, all tried to solve their problems by shooting their supervisor.

In 1991, Joseph Harris killed his supervisor in her home, then went to work and shot his co-workers.

In 1986, Patrick Sherrell killed fourteen and injured seven in response to a terrible performance review.

In 1986 Dominic Lupoli and Warren Murphy each went berserk when they were rejected by a female co-worker. Mark Richard did the same in 1993.

No one knows why John Taylor did what he did. He seemed happily married, well liked, and was an excellent employee, but in 1989 he shot his wife and then went to work and killed two of his friends and then himself. The only explanation authorities found was a note from Taylor saying he did "what he had to do."

In May 1993, there were two post office killings in one day. Larry Jasion, angry that he was passed over for promotion opened fire at a Post Office in Michigan. Four hours later, in California, Mark Richard returned to a Post Office that he had been fired from for stalking a female co-worker and started shooting.

Title: Going Postal
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release Date: (US) September 28, 2004
ISBN: US Hardcover (0-06-001313-3)

Terry Pratchett's Discworld books are more often hit than miss, but even among his hit books, there are those that go beyond "hit" and into "oh wow this is goddamn special" (e.g., Small Gods). I think Going Postal falls very squarely into the latter class.

Like his previous adult Discworld book, Monstrous Regiment, Going Postal is a one-shot, not spinning off from the major Discworld mini series (Witches, Death, Night Watch, Rincewind).

Moist von Lipwig, a fraud, grifter, and counterfeiter - a Robin Hood that steals from the rich to fund Moist von Lipwig - is saved by Vetinari from dancing the hemp fandango. The patrician, a man of hard bargains, allows him to go free with one caveat: Moist is to be put in charge of an institution fallen into hard times (a slow death presumbly sped up with the introduction of the clacks): Ankh-Morpork's Post Office.

Oh, there's the other caveat, of course, but that shouldn't bother Moist too much: Mr. Pump, his parole officer. Don't let it bother Moist too much that Mr. Pump is a golem, and if Moist should run away, there's no place in the world that Mr. Pump can't go. Oh, and don't mind the fact that while Moist must occasionally stop to sleep and to eat, Mr. Pump doesn't.

There, that wasn't too bad for Moist, was it? He gets a new life, a helping hand, and a new job!

(Of course it won't bother Moist that the past few postmasters died gruesome, bizarre deaths that involved splashing on the floor, so of course Vetinari's not going to mention it. And of course Moist's not going to mention that he thinks the mail is talking to him.)

The book, its title based on the common conception that postal workers are one bean short from the full jar of sanity, is a madcap adventure in reviving the Post Office of Ankh-Morpork and pitting the "little man" against the monopoly: the clacks ("Grand Trunk"), now a company privately owned and maintained by a collection of businessmen/investors. This collective is headed by Reacher Gilt, a man that could put a lying, cheating Enron executive to shame. Ah, but you see, Moist himself is a lying, cheating Enron type executive himself, and it's his business and hard work at stake, there's no sodding way he's going to take it like a honest man...

Terry Pratchett outdoes himself in the writing in this one. While Pratchett is generally known as an author of light-hearted humor, his last few Discworld books have been with a darker view (Night Watch, Monstrous Regiment, The Truth... I'd even say his children's books, about Tiffany Aching, are also pretty dark). His writing, including his humor, in Going Postal is much sharper and meaner; perhaps it's to reflect that no one in this book considers themselves to even be remotely a good person, and the things that they do, including those of the "good guys," are not particularly morally upright. Veterinai labels himself a tyrant; Moist a cheat; Gilt an ambitious crook. Even Moist's love interest (Pratchett always provides his male characters with interesting love interests), Adora Belle Dearheart, is a true femme fatale (her nickname is the "Killer") and her spiky, cynical personality, ability to see right through Moist, and heavy hundred-cigarettes-a-day habit is enough to make Moist, if not charmed, at least head over heels for her. ("And hadn't his grandfather warned him to keep away from women as neurotic as a shaved monkey? Actually, he hadn't, his interest lying mainly with dogs and beer, but he should have.")

But really, in the end, who are the good guys and who are the bad ones? And does it even matter?

Pratchett, as usual, has thrown in the book historical references and injokes for readers who style themselves as overly clever. What is most interesting so far is that while Vetinari allows Ankh-Morpork a very strictly capitalist "laissez-faire" system, it doesn't stop him from feeling that a certain sort of regulation is required. The book is a pretty interesting reflection of early 20th century US history, with the rise of the monopoly (in the Grand Trunk's case, a horizontal monopoly) and its "robber barons," which were eventually reined in and restricted by President Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly enough, even Moist is something of an early 20th century man: a grifter, a expert in the art of social engineering, a man who enjoys the game for the sake of the game, and fastidious about his crimes; they are almost always crimes in which only a truly dishonest man would fall for. Moist has a decided aversion to violence, which is something that many of the more well-known grifters were also known for. (I would recommend reading "The Big Con"; it's a thoroughly informative and entertaining read about these grifters.)

References of Note (spoilers at the bottom)

  • The golems seem to run on Asmiov's three laws, with one very important distinction.
  • The Post Office's "motto" is one mistakenly reflected by the United States Postal Service (though it's merely a motto on one of the post offices in New York City, across the street from Madison Square Garden).
  • The addendum to the above motto is the throwback from one of his earlier books, Men at Arms.
  • The clacks network works much like TCP/IP; a lot of the terms used will be familiar to those who have taking a networking course.
  • The symbol of the post office, the young golden man, is probably Hermes/Mercury (or his equivalent in Discworld, Fedecks), who was the messenger of the Greek/Roman gods.
  • Stanley's monologue on cabbages is an echo of Bubba's litany of shrimp dishes from Forrest Gump.
  • The game that Moist keeps talking about - Find the Lady - is a British term that they kept in the US edition of the book. Anyone familiar with the game would instantly know what it is by Pratchett's description, but for those U.S. fans that don't, it's better known as three card monte, and commonly employed by card sharps everyone. It is a very old and traditional grift, and can be somewhat profitable.
  • The tactics of Reacher Gilt are an echo of the famous "robber barons" of the early 20th century, particularly that of Rockefeller.
  • The "twelve and a half percent" that the parrot keeps squawking about is, of course 1/8, or, as Moist puts it, "pieces of eight." This is a reference to the old Spanish silver dollar, which could be cut up into eighths and used as currency. It's actually a double pun, and a particularly clever one at that. The first, most obvious one, is that "pieces of eight" is a reference to pirates - the Spanish silver dollar is very heavily tied to pirate lore - and in stories, parrots of pirates would cry out "pieces of eight!" (See Treasure Island). So having Reacher's parrot squawking "twelve and a half percent!" is rather appropriate, considering that Reacher is, after all, a "pirate". The second pun is something of a spoiler, and therefore listed below.

References of Note (SPOILER)

  • The other reference that's made with the "twelve and a half percent!" squawked by Reacher's parrot is how Reacher stole the Grand Trunk - in a hostile takeover bid. The odd stock quote system utilized today in the stock market (using fractions 1/4, 1/8, etc), is actually derived from the Spanish silver dollar "pieces of eight" as well. Clever, eh?
  • The "race" at the end is rather reminiscent of another early 20th century event, the race between the horse and "Tom Thumb," the steam engine. Guess who won?
  • The Smoking Gnu (a play on the terms "the smoking gun", but I guess "The Smoking Gonne" doesn't really have the same effect) call themselves crackers, which is technically the "proper" term for people who break into systems/crack decryption (whether it be maliciously or simply for personal educational purposes).

So, what exactly did Reacher Gilt and his cohorts do?

I don't think the book makes it very clear what Gilt did, exactly, to end up with control of the Grand Trunk, but you can infer most of it through the text. What it looks like is that when the Grand Trunk was being formed, the people were in desperate need of money and Reacher approached them with the offer of cash flow in exchange for 40% of Grand Trunk's stake. Mr. Dearheart and his fellow engineers accepted, but them, not being too keen on the ways of accounting and money, were probably also grateful for Gilt's offer to manage the money through certain "accountants." Gilt raised the cash flow by approaching several representatives of various companies, who basically embezzled funds from their own companies for a stake in the Grand Trunk (which was obviously going to be a serious cash cow). Through some creative accounting on Reacher's side, Mr. Dearheart and friends realized that they still needed more money for the Grand Trunk's completion, and, probably not understanding how publically traded companies worked, exchanged another 15% stake for more money. Which gave Reacher and his cronies the controlling stake of the Grand Trunk, at 55%, while at the same time putting the Grand Trunk's founders into some serious debt. This is basically how Reacher ends up with the company for the fraction of its cost.

The part that you see the most in the book, the deterioration of the Grand Trunk, is a tactic that is pretty common in the bigger stock scandals within the last two decades - in particular, Kmart. By cutting costs and downsizing staff, a company board can maintain the illusion of being profitable in the quarter reports (along with some creative accounting) even as the actual company itself falls apart. Reacher has also slowed the deterioration of the Grand Trunk by also employing the tactics of the robber barons - cutting out all rivals (Adora Belle's brother's company, New Trunk). But you can only cut so much before the unprofitability of the company starts showing, and by the time Moist comes into the picture, Reacher has reached the end of the line for the Grand Trunk.


The part that makes Gilt such a crook is that Grand Trunk's deterioration means nothing to him. Like Moist, he starts off with nothing; as a showman, he's convinced other people to invest the money, even as they believe he, too, has a real stake. A grifter, you could say. Reacher has no actual stake in the company, unlike the businessmen with the embezzled funds. To be more precise, Reacher's best interest is to let Grand Trunk deteriorate to nothing, and then buy the entire stake at slashed prices to build right back up again. And through a combination of showsmanship (on Reacher's part) and desperation (on the investors' part), Reacher has basically convinced them to keep their money in the Grand Trunk - they are so so deeply involved in the company that to pull out now would be unthinkable. Just like the Nigerian scam - the investment of a few thousand dollars is so much that the investor will not bear to think the thought that the money is all gone, and continue adding more in the hopes of seeing a return. A good, classic grift - and it's exactly that skill that Moist sees and respects, and eventually uses against Reacher.

  • If anyone's got references for me to add at the bottom, by all means message me. So far, Vorbis and Zerotime have helped!
  • There is a rather insightful, complete writeup about the book Going Postal above, so my comments will instead feature a few thoughts on where the book sits in the Discworld corpus in general. All of the Discworld novels can be read on their own, but the more that are read, the more the overall themes of the series come through.

    Discworld is a series of books by Terry Pratchett about a fictional, fantasy-themed world set on a disc carried on the back of four elephants, which are in turn carried on the back of a gigantic turtle, swimming through space. Going Postal is a book about the establishment of the post office, the role of monopolies in capitalism, the internet and libertarianism. Someone who has read many of the Discworld books thinking "yes, yes, what is your point". The non-familiar reader may think those two statements are somewhat incongruous, which shows that perhaps they have an advantage in this point.

    The Discworld books started out as a parody of fantasy themes. It was actually this reputation that kept me away from Pratchett for so long, I thought his works would be similar to Piers Anthony, repetitive in-jokes on fantasy for those who appreciated such in-jokes. And the early Discworld books were somewhat in that line. In my opinion, the early books were both less funny and less involving then the later books. Over the course of the books, a few things happened.

    The fantasy setting used to be there mostly as backdrop for whatever the story of the current book was. It was more one-dimensional, and being one dimensional, less humane. The residents of Discworld's largest city, Ankh-Morpork, were an easily manipulated proletariat, at the mercy (such as it was) of the Thief's Guild and Assassin's Guild. The wizards were an amoral, fratricidal lot. The ruler of the city, The Patrician, was a vicious tyrant who would assassinate or torture anyone who got in his way. The anthropomorphication of Death was a cruel spectre. But as the series went on, two things happened: fantasy tropes exhausted their amusement as sources of mockery, and Pratchett, writing about the same characters over dozens of books, couldn't treat them one dimensionally. He started showing some affection for his characters, and started solving their problems, instead of just cynically commenting on them.

    It would be hard to say when that started happening, but by 2004, and "Going Postal", the transformation is almost complete. The fantasy underpinnings of the world are not explored. There is still magic mentioned, but it is just a supporting point. The Patrician, once a Machiavellian figure, is recast as someone protecting the little people of Ankh-Morpork from those who would exploit them, and who uses his knowledge of human nature and veiled threats to get his way, instead of total cruelty. One of the ways he does that is to manipulate the book's protagonist, Moist Von Lipwig into taking care of the postal service to undermine the monopoly of The Clacks, a telecommunication monopoly. Lipwig's struggle with his criminal nature, and the discussion of corporate financing and the downside of libertarianism, is a much more involving, and humane plot than was present in the earlier books. The portrayals of the supporting cast members, such as Stanley, the autistic boy who collects pins, and Tolliver, the gruntled old man with dangerous natural cures for his ailments, are also not the stuff of fantasy trope, but are instead commentaries on contemporary society. The focus of the books is no longer on fantasy, but on the evolving civic life of Ankh-Morpork.

    All of this explanation is perhaps giving the wrong impression of the book. The serious content, and turn in thematics, has not made Pratchett's writing style more dry. This book zings along with odd, yet fitting descriptions of people and places, as well as the typical Pratchett mystery with attendant plot twists and turns. While the book can be read as part of the Pratchett corpus, it can also be read as a funny story of a man trying to run a post office in a world much like ours, only exaggerated for comic possibility.

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