Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession


Leonard and Hungry Paul are two 30-something friends who lead quiet and largely contented lives.  Leonard works as a writer for children’s encyclopedias and is diligent and careful in his work. His mother has recently died; his social time is spent largely with his friend playing Monopoly one evening each week. Hungry Paul lives with his parents and works for the post office only on days when he is called to replace someone. Despite their circumscribed lives, we see them as appealing and pleasant characters in their interactions with each other and Hungry Paul’s parents and sister.

Though the story is set in Ireland in current (pre-pandemic) times, it feels timeless and not tied to location. That said, it reminds me of two books I loved by the Irish writer Deirdre Madden, Molly Fox’s Birthday and Time Present and Time Past. All three of these books brought me a sense of peace and well-being.

Over the course of a few months that their story is told the two men do change and enlarge their lives in a positive way and bring us moments of laughter, joy, and recognition. Hungry Paul’s attention is caught by an article by the Chamber of Commerce noting the need for updating the phrases commonly used in business writing. The endings are particularly of concern and the article writer notes,

By way of international comparison, it is worth pointing out that in the United States of America, where they like their business correspondence to be snappy and rude, they have abandoned stuffy sign-offs altogether. Most letters and emails over there now end with the phrase ‘Am I right or am I right?’

Hungry Paul takes on the challenge of finding a new ending phrase, and wins the $10,000 offered in the competition. He has no plans for the money. He tries to explain to his sister that he lives in the moment and will figure out what to do when any situation arises.

Leonard tentatively begins a relationship with a woman at work. On their first date when she asks what his favorite book was he said it was Moby Dick. She says, “Isn’t that basically an encyclopedia of whaling with a story stuck on to it?” He acknowledges that and says that given his work, it’s not too surprising that he would like a factual book.

Hungry Paul’s mother encourages him to visit people in the hospital with her. He is reluctant and doesn’t feel comfortable trying to make small talk. He sits with a woman who is silent except for yelling abusively at his mother. She is quiet and her only interaction with Hungry Paul is to take his hand. In the weeks to come they sit for hours, silently holding hands. There’s a story that warms the heart of a hospice volunteer.

One oddity is that we never learn why he is called Hungry Paul, but the sound of it takes on an unexplainable pleasantness. That is a description for other aspects of the book:  it’s just unexplainably pleasant.

Rónán Hession, Leonard and Hungry Paul, Melville House, 2020, 256 pages (I read the kindle version). Not in the public library.

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