Postal by Brock Wilbur & Nathan Rabin is intelligent, compelling, and infinitely more lighthearted than the video game it chronicles. As a piece of nonfiction, Wilbur & Rabin combine personal anecdote, interviews, and cultural criticism with a deep dive into the history and backstory of the 1997 game Postal.
Although a relative non-gamer myself, I was eager to read Postal. I have vague recollections of Postal from the 90s. As in, I heard about it as rumor, maybe something the cousin of a friend may have owned, but I never played it. A rumor in the same vein as the half-truths we passed around about the NIN Broken movie or how Marilyn Manson had a rib removed in order to better accommodate auto-fellatio. Rumors were harder to prove in the 90s, before the internet, and Postal encouraged exactly the sort of whispered, illicit rumors that inflame suburban teenagers already angst-ridden over the shortcomings of their relatively comfortable upbringings.
Upon release, Postal garnered near-instant infamy. It was violent in a new and different way that imperiled civilians, everyday people, innocent lives. In the game, you walk around various locales shooting down as many people as possible. The most notorious set piece was a marching band walking naively into the crosshairs of the main character/shooter. The game ends in an elementary school. Postal is a dark, senseless thing with mediocre production values and little to no memorable storyline or character development. It was also perhaps a little ahead of its time. The Columbine shooting was a few years off. Even as the national discussion (or scapegoating) around violent video games would shine a light on the “lazy, smirking nihilism” of Postal, its creators managed to franchise their game into multiple sequels—and even a movie. “Today,” note Wilbur & Rabin, “the concept of ‘goin’ postal’ fits firmly in the category of 90s shit that we made into a joke instead of, y’know, dealing with.”
Wilbur & Rabin’s book covers all of this messy, sometimes sad history. The book is broken up into three sections: 1) Postal: The Game, 2) Postal: The Movie, and 3) Postal: The Mess. Each section is broken up into smaller chapters. As a relative non-gamer, I found the material engaging and even welcoming.
Section One includes a story about playing Postal at a childhood sleepover that makes an author’s friend ill, a chapter detailing the history of Postal, and a description of the game told in second-person:
There is no sense of spectacle or performance in how you mow down your neighbors and the local law enforcement. The only sounds are the guns and then the tormented wails of your victims as they twitch on the ground, bleeding out. Very quickly, this chorus of death rattles starts to loop and layer to such an extreme that it borders on a dance remix of tragedy.
I always expected Postal to be more of a lighthearted rampage. This is painful. And bleak. And not particularly fun.
An interview with the creator of Postal, game designer Vince Desi, rounds out the section and offers extended space for parsing the intent and the meaning of a game like Postal.
Section Two deals with the sequels and even a movie version of Postal, directed by Uwe Boll, a director as infamous as the game itself. Often dubbed “the worst director of all time,” the German Boll has directed several low-grade movies based on video games. As the book explains, Boll is the perpetually angry and misunderstood artist, the perfect sort of imperfect “visionary” to manifest Postal on the big screen.
Section Three wraps up the book by offering some parting thoughts on what the game means nearly twenty-five years after its release. The diagnosis is grim. Postal is steadfastly cynical and senseless and violent, but it is only a symptom, not the disease. The authors write frankly about their own difficulty in finding a satisfactory way to finish the book, given the violence that Postal animates resembles so closely the violence that plays over and over in American news.
In the two years I’ve spent writing and rewriting, what really stalled me was how tragedies kept happening. The Harvest music festival in Vegas. The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The Walmart in El Paso. I kept thinking, I’ve got to add something about this one . . .
If there is a flaw to be found, it is that despite the authors’ self-awareness and humor, Postal the book cannot fully shake the cynicism of Postal the franchise. It stains the text like an oil, leaching across the pages, eventually seeping onto our fingers. Postal‘s creators “set out to make edgelord schlock,” write the authors, “and then the rest of the world made edgelord schlock out of reality.” Their point is well taken and not without merit, but it is a bitter pill to swallow.
After finishing the book, I went online to see if I could find the game. I located a free copy, clicked download, and began playing. The game is memorably bad. The tone is jarring, jumping from over-the-top apocalyptic to the mundane and suburban. Gameplay is clunky at best and a complete lack of story robs the player of even that small, biochemical boost of dopamine the player would receive from completing missions or objectives. Playing the game, I was in the same penumbra as the authors, caught within the Postal‘s contaminating shadow. Not that I wasn’t properly warned. “There is a sense from the very beginning,” write Wilbur & Rabin, “that this massacre will be more work than fun.”
Postal the book is a quick read and, despite its subject, is actually pretty enjoyable as well as informative. We are better for the work of writers like Brock Wilbur & Nathan Rabin, their hands plunged deep into the muck and mire. And God bless them for dealing with people like Vince Desi (so we don’t have to).
Postal, by Brock Wilbur & Nathan Rubin. Los Angeles, California: Boss Fight Books, April 2020. 176 pages. $14.95, paper.
Andrew Rihn is the author of numerous scholarly articles and chapbooks of poetry, including Revelation: An Apocalypse in Fifty-Eight Fights (Press 53, 2020), Song of the Rescue (EMP Books, 2019), and America Plops and Fizzes (sunnyoutside press, 2010). He writes a boxing column, “The Pugilist,” for Into the Void magazine. He was born in Canton, Ohio, where he still lives.