Going Postal is the outrageous story of a massive rivalry between two professional crooks. In this corner, the lamentably named Moist von Lipwig (Roger Ebert has an axiom about "funny" character names, in that they're almost never funny, and this seems to be another rule the infuriatingly capable Pratchett effortlessly violates). A petty con artist whose deeds have finally caught up with him, von Lipwig is spared from the gallows — actually, he's only just "almost" hanged — by Lord Vetinari, ruler of Ankh-Morpork, if he agrees to take on the job of postmaster. The Ankh-Morpork Post Office is in what could be politely termed a moribund state, ever since the Grand Trunk company, with its ubiquitous semaphore "clacks" towers, has made it possible to send messages everywhere almost instantly.
But things are not going too well with the clacks towers. In the opposite corner, we have Machiavellian tycoon Reacher Gilt, head of the Grand Trunk company. His towers have been experiencing a startlingly routine series of breakdowns and mishaps, what with poor messengers falling off and everything. Further rumors that some of the towers may be haunted aren't helping matters, and the public are growing increasingly frustrated that their expensive messages are being delayed. Gilt is well aware that Vetinari himself is displeased with the running of the towers, especially the venality of the Grand Trunk company's board. But it's not as if Vetinari himself could be supportive of the campaign of sabotage, so expertly carried out by a shadowy organization calling themselves "The Smoking Gnu." Gilt is wary but not worried; what other options does Anhk-Morpork have, after all? It's not as if the Post Office is working, is it?
Moist cannot for the life of him determine why Vetinari would want him running the Post Office, of all things. But as the alternative would be death, he decides he'd best settle in, especially once it becomes clear he'll never be able to escape from the watchful golem assigned to him. Moist discovers a staff of two — a young dweeb named Stanley with an obsessive pin-collecting habit, and a geriatric "junior" postman named Groat — manning a decrepit building with millions of undelivered letters, some over a century old, piled to the ceilings. In little time the old con man in Moist comes back to the fore. As long as he's stuck at this job, he might as well try to make it work and make some good money at it. Of course, by the time he learns most of his predecessors died rather nastily, he's past of point of no return. But there was never an option to back out anyway.
Before long, Moist has expanded his staff, demanded that all old mail be delivered, and, most importantly, come up with a new innovation called "stamps," which are essentially as good as printing money. He works out that he can set his own prices (a penny for local delivery, dollar stamps for towns further out) and still undercut the clacks. With the help of the ever-present newspaper, which is only too happy to hype a juicy story, the Post Office is doing roaring business in no time. Moist is portrayed as something like a conquering hero. It's all going far too well. And the competition has noticed. Before you can say "Return to Sender," the battle is joined, and the stakes can only get higher.
Going Postal is more farce than satire. Whereas Pratchett has used many of his more recent Discworld outings to explore topical themes, in this novel it's all about the laughs. Yes, one can derive a witty deconstruction of the way people have gotten used to communicating in the modern world. (And one of my helpful British readers has sent in some interesting information on how the story parallels a nasty situation involving British Rail.) Cell phones and the internets have allowed us to take for granted something that was inconceivable twenty years ago: that we can all walk around with tiny gizmos in our pockets that will allow us, at any moment, to say hello to someone on the other side of the globe. But if all of that stopped working, could people really get used to writing letters again?
Mostly, though, the goal here is fast-paced comedy, and Pratchett (cue postal pun here) delivers as well as he's ever done. One of two things is possible when a writer has worked in the same world for 29 novels. He either has his techniques honed to perfection, and produces stories with the vigor and enthusiasm of a true master who loves the process of creating his art; or, he has his techniques honed to perfection, and produces stories with the bland indifference of a weary veteran cashing a paycheck. Reading Going Postal makes it joyously apparent that Pratchett is still in the former camp. And his fans should allow neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night to stay them from their appointed reading of this book. Express hilarity guaranteed.