By Dorian Stuber
The Irish writer Rónán Hession’s debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul is the funniest, kindest, and wisest book I’ve read in ages. Imagine Anita Brookner’s shrewdness without her cruelty, and you might have something like its opening sentence:
Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth.
So many of the novel’s important qualities are collected here: the strange syntactical prominence of the word “alone” offered as a state of being as much to cherish as to overcome; the reference to cheerfulness, a value in itself rather than a way to paper over unhappiness, even though the latter gets its due, too; and, not least, the zany swerve of the final clause into a joke that makes us laugh without demeaning a terrible reality. Hession knows how to withhold: we never find out how the father died. Indeed, for a brief moment, I wondered if the father had died during his own childbirth.
Leonard and Hungry Paul are friends in their mid-thirties who get together to play board games, drink tea, eat biscuits, and occasionally chat. They are older, human versions of the delightful protagonists of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, those childhood classics of introversion. Leonard writes children’s encyclopedias that appear under the moniker of a self-aggrandizing academic. Hungry Paul (the nickname is never explained—perhaps it is a family joke about his lack of ambition) works as a substitute postman on Monday mornings when the regulars call in sick with hangovers or ennui. Hungry Paul’s sister Grace is getting married to Andrew, who softens her eldest child’s tendency to organize everyone. Hungry Paul and Grace’s mother, Helen, still works a couple of days a week in the schools—ostensibly she is waiting for her full pension, but actually she is scared of being at home with her husband, Peter, all the time. Peter is a retired economist who loves to watch quiz shows at which he shouts out answers in rapid-fire bursts, mostly incorrectly. He is writing a speech for the wedding reception and wants it to be terrific.
During the day, Leonard works in an open-plan office, and like any right-thinking person, he uses noise-canceling headphones to survive this abomination. But one day he is pulled out of his work by a red-headed girl in a green sweater named Shelley, the floor’s fire marshal who is overseeing a fire drill. She is an art school dropout with vague plans to return eventually, an eight-year-old boy who is her everything, and curlicue handwriting that Leonard admires.
In a different book, Leonard would abandon Hungry Paul for Shelley, but, charmingly, the friends continue to get on, Leonard cheering as Hungry Paul finds his own successes: entering the local Chamber of Commerce’s contest to create a new email sign-off (I’d love to share his entry, it’s so perfect, but I won’t spoil the surprise); volunteering at the hospital, first at his mother’s insistence but then for its own rewards; and finally, through a series of surprisingly plausible events, becoming the head of the National Association of Mimes, which he revives by starting the Quiet Club, half-hour sessions in which participants sit silently. (To get people in the mood, Hungry Paul puts on Cage’s 4’33, which is perhaps a joke too far, but it made me laugh.)
Hession is also a musician (he records under the name Mumblin’ Deaf Ro) and a social worker. Although he offers plenty of musical references beyond the one to Cage—from Bach to P. J. Harvey—his other job leaves a bigger mark on the novel. Leonard and Hungry Paul showcases the best elements of social work: its mindset is not to pigeonhole but to show people how they are who they are.
We see that refusal to judge most clearly in the novel’s attitude to speeches, which symbolize everything tiresome about the world. Speeches are noise incarnate: canned, shrill, bullying, essentially coercive. The Chamber of Commerce people panic when Hungry Paul, asked to speak about his contest entry, stands contentedly silent before the crowd. Predictably, they rush to fill the void. “Speeches,” in this novel, are understood in the broadest sense, including those joking clichés that people, like the IT guy in the office who calls Leonard “Lenster” (shudder), use so that they are spared having to think.
Surprisingly, then, the novel ends with two outbursts in which the heroes explain themselves to others, Leonard to Shelley and Hungry Paul to Grace. But these cri de coueurs aren’t, in fact, speeches; they are spontaneous, offered to inform rather than to score points. This, they say, is who I am. Hungry Paul, in particular, is so reasonable, so aware of his inabilities in practical matters, so kind in his gentle insistence that he must do things his own way, and that the things he does are in fact things, even though to the busy world they might not look like it. These explanations take the place of Peter’s wedding speech, which Hessian gently declines to include, an omission I take to be a sign of the genuineness of the father’s sentiments.
You’ll notice I’ve often used the word “gentle.” You could call Leonard and Hungry Paul sweet, maybe even twee, but these words omit the steeliness essential to the book. Gentle people are quiet and kind; they aren’t pushovers. Leonard and Hungry Paul spoke to my soul but it never flattered me: it’s not a book about the triumph of the introvert, it never forgets that we live in the world and do ourselves a disservice if we shut it away, although we should meet it on our own terms. By the end, Hungry Paul’s early claim—“I have always been modestly Hippocratic in my instincts: I wish to do no harm”—has been modestly challenged.
Mostly Leonard and Hungry Paul made me laugh, real tears-in-the-eyes-might-have-to-pee laughter. Particularly excellent is a hilarious set piece in which Hungry Paul tries to complain to the supermarket about a tin of expired candy—the scene builds for pages and still manages to surprise at the end. But there are just as many little jokes, slid in, as it were, unsuspectingly. For example, when Hungry Paul first takes up judo he uses a bathrobe instead of a gi:
Hungry Paul emerged from the bathroom wearing a white fluffy bathrobe tied with a white belt, tracksuit bottoms and flip flops with some tissue paper stuck to them. He was shaking his wrists and wore the look of intense concentration that is characteristic of a man with wet hands looking for a towel. The fact that he was in the unlikely position of wearing clothes made from the very material he needed might have tempted a lesser man, but, having already run the risk of doing a sit-down toilet while wearing white, he was not minded to capitulate under a lesser challenge.
Happily, the novel abounds with this Wodehouse-level stuff. Leonard and Hungry Paul is a balm for the soul and smart as a whip too. (Now look who’s using clichés!) It is the most joyful book I have read in this decidedly non-joyful year.
Dorian Stuber teaches English at Hendrix College and blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.blog.