You may wish to note the below.
As a hailing, this phrase is eccentric yet disarming. It also shares a description with the two characters that share the book’s title—Leonard and Hungry Paul. It is also a variation of Hungry Paul’s entry for the Chamber of Commerce’s sign-off contest, which he doesn’t want the prize money for. The two autodidacts can be found wearing paisley pajama tops to work, making jokes without meaning to be funny, or naming their parents’ house after a French song lyric that they misinterpreted. Eccentric yet disarming.
Rónán Hession’s debut novel is a comedy. In many ways it is one of the most traditional classifications of comedy––it has its roots in Greek New Comedy, centering on a romantic plot with familial affairs, stock characters, and a generally happy ending. As a result, the outline of the book closely follows the type of comedies we have come to recognize from television and film, such as the eleven-year hit show Frasier and the movie Big (1988), which are two productions that have amusing parallels to Hession’s book.
Leonard and Hungry Paul are in their thirties and have retreated from the world, choosing to live simple and quiet lives. For Leonard, that meant a companionship with his mother, playing board games with Hungry Paul, and writing encyclopedias. For Hungry Paul it meant emergency fill-in mail carryings on Mondays, replenishing the bird feeders, and, of course, board games with Leonard. The two friends, who are adept listeners, begin to hear the universe close in around them, as Leonard loses his mother, and Hungry Paul’s parents start to feel their parental duties coming to a close as his sister Grace’s wedding day nears. Their way of life becomes complicated by their inevitable aloneness. The universe is expanding, but at some unknown point, it will begin to contract until it shrinks back to the nothingness that was before the Big Bang. Hession employs this changing scale as a metaphor for their circumstance, or rather, Leonards does. As Leonard and Hungry Paul age, are their lives shrinking or expanding?
With the very white, upper-middle class upbringings and high-mindedness of the two Scrabble buffs creating a comparable effect to the stock comedy character pedants, Frasier and Niles Crane, various laughter inducing scenarios arise from their social blunders and erroneous assumptions as they advance from refuge. For example, the two shop together for dress clothes and they both become “smitten” with the days-of-the-week socks near the register. And also when Hungry Paul rides into the supermarket on his high-horse and makes a scene over an expired box of chocolates that turned out to house his mother’s sewing instruments. In this way, much of the comedy results in a habitual, “that was so Leonard,” or “what a Hungry Paul thing to do.” It lands somewhere between endearing and frustrating, and buttresses one of the book’s themes about learning to find a balance across knowledge and experience– both being just as important in an education.
Hession’s novel’s likeness to Big is rendered through the pairs’ child-like naivety bumping up against what are considered grown-up scenarios, capturing that Tom Hanks innocence in an adult body feeling. It is not a surprise that while the two are learning to wrestle with their fear over “the bigness of life,” they show others that exercising some inner-child is another helpful way to reach equilibrium.
If finding balance is a theme that winds through Leonard and Hungry Paul, then, quiet demeanors and expert listening skills are the paramount elements that the comrades bring to the loud and insatiable world. Can these quiet man-children actually contribute? The answer to that question gets at the very heart of the story. And without ruining the finer moments of the novel, it can be said that Hession’s work is one for introverts to enjoy and extroverts to marvel at.
Hession’s narrative is cheerful and funny. But it is also a meditation on loneliness, fear, and what we fill our lives up with to compensate for them. In more than one way, it is a coming-of-age story for the already aged. It is a reminder that we are scared children, grasping at the answers, often confused about what we should clutch to and what we should throw ourselves at.
Leonard and Hungry Paul
By Rónán Hession
Melville House Publishing
Published August 11, 2020
Keith Contorno is a Chicago-based writer and educator.