The Delivery: A Novel
- By Peter Mendelsund
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy
- February 10, 2021
An anonymous courier comes fully to life in this deceptively rich tale.
During the covid-19 pandemic, DoorDashers and Amazon Prime delivery people have become central to our lives. They arrive at our front steps with food and parcels and then disappear. Indispensable though they are, we rarely speak to them these days since no-contact service has rendered them nearly invisible.
So, it’s apt that a courier should find himself as the main character of a new novel. By the time you finish Peter Mendelsund’s The Delivery, you’ll never think of these people the same way again.
The novel takes us into the world of a nameless bike messenger known only as “the delivery boy.” Chapter one simply says, “Delivery 1,” followed by two stars. The early chapters read like a logbook; chapter six is like a little poem. But pretty soon, the briskly paced writing and effortless style — guided by an unnamed narrator — take off.
Gradually, you find yourself in the delivery boy’s inner world. He’s in tune with the rhythms of the city, operating on a kind of telepathic frequency with traffic, pedestrians, and customers. He understands how they move and paces himself accordingly. He instinctively knows which customers will tip and which will stiff him. But he doesn’t grasp the deeper purpose of the city or the motives and aims of its inhabitants.
As his entries gather momentum, they also lengthen and develop. We learn that the delivery boy speaks several languages, just not that of this particular city. While he now lives in a bunkroom at a warehouse — where he is exploited by, and indentured to, his Supervisor — back in his home country, he belonged to a youth orchestra.
And there’s a pecking order among delivery boys. On the bottom rung are those who make no tips but merely fetch packages from distributors and shelve them in the warehouse. Then there are bike messengers like our delivery boy. Above him are the more privileged errand-runners who take orders directly from customers:
“What would it be like, the delivery boy wondered (to be clever enough — capable enough — lucky enough to not need a warehouse at all; not need a dispatcher, a Supervisor).”
The delivery boy rarely converses with fellow workers other than dispatcher N, a girl who comes from a country with a similar language to the one he speaks. He longs for a deeper connection with her, and their interactions infuse him — even though, most of the time, “her face was a marvel of giving away nothing.”
By the way, I’ve noticed that when I refer to the main character as “the delivery boy” in this review, it comes across as glib. Somehow, this isn’t the effect it has in the novel. It may have something to do with the book’s tone, as well as its perspective, which shifts almost imperceptibly. The narrative moves from logbook-like entries to close-in third person. Gradually, the unnamed narrator begins to interject occasional memories of his own.
We learn that the narrator, like the delivery boy, was also displaced due to political unrest in his home country and that he, too, speaks “an amputee language — a language in which whole tenses had been lopped off, a language of the present only — a language that subsequently required an even newer, supplementary, makeshift language; prosthetic, and ill-equipped for mourning.”
Although this structure is confusing at first, you come to feel as though consciousness here is layered like cellophane: one reality on top of the other. There is the physical life of the city; then the delivery boy pedaling his way from one errand to the next; then his inner world; and finally, overlaid atop everything, the narrator’s reflections.
An exhilarating freedom emerges as the delivery boy bikes further and further afield, thoughts flitting across his mind. He is in sync with the music of the city and almost becomes that music itself. Ultimately, you find yourself in a kind of dreamscape. By the end of the book, the writing has stretched into long descriptive pages not even broken into paragraphs.
Does it sound a little gimmicky? It’s not. It’s more like a symphony played by various instruments. Despite its surprisingly boring cover (given that Peter Mendelsund is a noted book-cover designer), The Delivery more than delivers. I was enthralled — perhaps transported is a better word — from the first page right through to the magical conclusion.
Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.