Book Review | Leonard and Hungry Paul: An Antidote for 2020

Leonard and Hungry Paul

Leonard and Hungry Paul is the debut novel by Irish writer Ronan Hession, though many at home will be familiar with his music, performed under the moniker Mumblin’ Deaf Ro. Published by UK based Bluemoose Books, it has has built and perpetuated considerable momentum since its release, and was nominated for the Irish book of the Year Awards.

It is a story of charm and wit that immerses the reader within the ordinary, everyday lives of our narrators. The titular Leonard works as a ghost writer of children’s encyclopaedias, of which he himself is an avid reader. Paul lives at home with his parents and works every second Monday as a postman. The wants and desires of both men are simple, and they remain gloriously void of external influences while steering well clear of extroverts.

Their friendship was not just one of convenience between two quiet, solitary men with few other options, it was a pact. A pack to resist the vortex of busyness and insensitivity that had engulfed the rest of the world.

It is loosely comparable to a coming of age novel, except rather than transitioning into adulthood, it details the lives of two idiosyncratic introverts in their 30’s. There are no suspenseful plot twists, no flashbacks to traumatic childhoods, there’s no dabbling with addiction nor regrettable love affairs. Instead, these characters possess a fondness for boardgames and talks over tea. A love for encyclopaedias and an appreciation for the art of miming. Rather than troubled teenagers, we have two characters who are reserved, thoughtful and in need of just a little direction in life. This is the story of those who are often underrepresented and understated in literature, the uncomplicated who simply don’t make for engaging subjects. And yet, it cannot be emphasised enough how vibrant, charming, adoring and witty this book is. 

In an almost Disney-esque fashion, Leonard and Hungry Paul opens with the death of Leonard’s mother, a woman who was as much a companion as she was a matriarch. To occupy himself in his spare time (this being something for single men to “fill rather than spend”), he makes regular visits to his close childhood friend, Hungry Paul (why he is referred to as ‘hungry’ is left entirely up to the readers imagination). Paul resides in his family home with both parents, where all live in near perfect harmony. Grace, Paul’s caring and worrying older sister, who is soon due to be married is absent from the house. This marriage serves somewhat as a focal point in the book, an event which is expected to alter the fabric of the family structure.

What is utterly revitalising about Leonard and Hungry Paul is Hession’s lack of interest in conflict as a narrative device. In fact, at the time of writing, it is arduous to think of a piece with less tension, less friction. Yet it is a device which is in no way missed. The minor trials and tribulations of these two men is a joy to read, as Paul and his family prepare for the wedding of his sister and Leonard becomes romantically involved for the first time. It does not shepard any covert political agendas, nor does it strive to enforce any anti-capitalist rhetoric. Instead, we are absorbed, without distraction, within the lives of these narrators.

The unspecified location reinforces the slight detach from reality. There is a rough sketch of an urban landscape, streets, shops, restaurants, mentions of McDonald’s and a Tesco but only blueprints, which alleviates the characters from any major specific socio-geographical struggles. Both men reside in their family homes not (like many of us) because of unprecedented rent prices, but because they are happy in these homes.

Leonard and Hungry Paul is a kind and thoughtful piece with rich anecdotes and sage advice. It is by no means a taxing read but is rewarding in a great many ways. In fact, although published in 2019, fewer books will serve as a better antidote for 2020. And it might just inspire you to get a bird feeder.

‘The figure in Munch’s painting isn’t actually screaming!’ Hungry Paul said. ‘Really, are you sure?’ replied Leonard. ‘Absolutely. That’s the whole thing. The figure is actually closing his ears to block out a scream. Isn’t that amazing? A painting can be so misunderstood and still become so famous.’

Leonard and Hungry Paul was published in the United States by Melville House in August. Bluemoose Books will publish Panenka, Hession’s second novel, in May 2021.

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