Book Reviews · 06/17/2019

Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession

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Bluemoose Books, 2019

Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth. Though she was not by nature the soldiering type, she taught him to look at life as a daisy chain of small events, each of which could be made manageable in its own way. She was a person for whom kindness was a very ordinary thing, who believed that the only acceptable excuse for not having a bird feeder in the back garden was that you had one in the front garden.

The opening paragraph of Leonard and Hungry Paul thus introduces one of the two main characters and sets the tone — seemingly straightforward, quirky — that makes this first novel by Irish author Rónán Hession such a delight. Hession (aka Mumblin’ Deaf Ro) is a successful musician whose album Dictionary Crimes was nominated for the Choice Music Prize in 2012. From writing and performing poetic and achingly heartfelt songs essentially about family life, he has published short stories including the excellent “Audio Guide” (The Bohemyth 2017). Leonard and Hungry Paul deserves a broad audience.

Leonard and his best/only friend Hungry Paul are thirty-some-year-olds whose mundane lives are described at exciting times. Both are still living at home but changes in family circumstances have brought new challenges. Leonard’s mother has recently died and he must adapt to life without her; Hungry Paul’s sister Grace is soon to be married and he is encouraged to think about being more independent from his retired parents.

The women in the novel are its catalysts for action: Leonard’s mother (above); Hungry Paul’s mother Helen, who encourages him to expand his world by taking up hospital visiting; Shelley the office fire warden, who pushes Leonard out of his comfort zone; and Grace. The stress of preparations for her wedding affects the family and the two friends and allows the author to show both how the family works and Grace’s vulnerability at a very basic level. A detailed flashback to her childhood depicts her loneliness and insecurity at that time. And yet, she has already left home, having ‘turned out well.’ In contrast, how much more difficult could it be for her brother?

Leonard and perhaps especially Hungry Paul are ‘special’. There are few details of their lives before the novel opens, so the reader must accept them for what they are, just as their families and broader entourage seem to do. Neither has ‘a Eureka face,’ their mothers say, ‘boys who prefer games to sports … have few friends but lots of ideas’. There is no information about where the story takes place, what the families’ surnames are, how the friends know each other or why Hungry Paul is so named — is it because of his liking for biscuits or his incessant curiosity? No one but the narrator actually refers to him by name. Yet the world in which they live is instantly recognisable: the time feels more or less like now and the place is an English-speaking city with a hospital, offices, a supermarket, chamber of commerce, national gallery, national history museum and the families’ houses, both with bird tables. The characters described (nice or not, silly, garrulous) are also instantly recognisable. They are treated gently, without judgement, although there is no doubt about the grossness of Helpdesk Greg or the self-interested sympathy of the women in the supermarket when Hungry Paul complains about out-of-date chocolates. Even Hungry Paul is seen as absurd in his fluffy bathrobe judo outfit and Leonard’s embarrassment of not knowing how to behave towards Shelley is admitted frankly (but handled delicately).

Leonard is a successful ghost writer of children’s encyclopaedias:

The job suited him as he was interested in pretty much everything interesting, and he preferred to play a minor part in someone else’s story rather than being his own star. He also liked the underdog credibility that came from being unsung and uncredited, even if the money was a bit less than he would have liked for his stage of life.

Hungry Paul is an occasional replacement postman with no fixed employment. Both need their own space. Both are self-sufficient, despite their difficulties in handling social situations. Their friendship is based on respect and on common interests in astronomy, nature, board games. ‘Their conversations combined the yin of Leonard’s love of facts with the yang of Hungry Paul’s chaotic curiosity.’

The first account of an evening that Leonard and Hungry Paul spend together is central to the novel. It illustrates many aspects of their relationship as well as introducing Hungry Paul’s family and home, Parley View. His parents are seen comfortably enjoying their evening with a jigsaw, the popular quiz show University Challenge on television and an early Easter egg. This is the happy atmosphere that has resulted in their son not leaving home. The narrator comments, ‘And maybe it’s rarer than it ought to be that a person appreciates such things.’ The two friends play Yahtzee, a choice influenced by Hungry Paul’s new interest in judo, and their conversation covers Munch’s “The Scream,” Hubble and the expansion and contraction of the universe, interspersed with ‘uninhibited rallies’ and ‘long pauses that characterised their comfort in each other’s company.’

Leonard considers Life and their lives:

‘Maybe it’s not just the universe that expands and contracts,’ he said. ‘Perhaps the same applies to us—you know, that as we get older, our lives start shrinking…
as a child the world looked huge, intimidatingly so. School looked big. Adults looked big. The future looked big. But I am starting to feel that over time I have retreated into a smaller world.’

Hungry Paul paused a moment. ‘I think I know what you mean; but for me, the bigness of life was always the problem. I have spent over three decades hacking a safe path through the wilderness, as have you to some extent. The path may be a little narrow in places, but is that really so bad?’

This appears to be a fundamental difference between the two. Leonard is newly worried about getting smaller, quieter and more invisible: ‘I just can’t help feeling that I need to open the doors and windows of my life a little.’ Hungry Paul is still more cautious, defensive: ‘Much like the Green Cross Code, I like to stop, look and listen before getting involved in things.’ And the key to survival is knowing ‘how much of the world to let in, without becoming overwhelmed.’

So Leonard determines to open doors and windows and Hungry Paul waits for ‘the universe to come knocking’, which it does. Both (dare to) progress: Hungry Paul finds a new interest/occupation, Leonard enters into a relationship with Shelley. They are happy, Hungry Paul’s family is happy, the reader is happy. The narrator has shared an intimate story about very real people, their game of life, with gentleness, respect and humour. Self-knowledge, the ability to listen and the curiosity/hunger to learn are obvious values. Kindness, too, and silence. He has lovingly described his two heroes, not hiding their weaknesses but believing in their possibilities. Anything else is left to the reader’s imagination.

As Hungry Paul would say, ‘You may wish to note the above.’

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Susan Jupp has worked in academic publishing in Canada and France and as an editor and communications specialist in international non-governmental organizations. She lives in Switzerland.