“I Wish to Do No Harm”: Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul

Yesterday was the best day because yesterday was the day I read Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, the funniest, kindest, and wisest book I’ve read in a long time. Imagine if Anita Brookner had kept her shrewdness and set aside her fascination for cruelty. She might have written something like the opening sentence to Hession’s first novel:

Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth.

It’s all here: the prominence of aloneness (to my ears, a slightly strange adjective, I might have expected something like “only,” and its syntactical position gently emphasizes the mother’s effort as opposed to the child’s situation); the reference to cheerfulness, an important value and not simply a way to paper over unhappiness, even though the novel gives the latter its due too; and not least the zany swerve of the final clause into a joke that doesn’t demean a terrible reality. (Unusually among contemporary novelists, Hession knows how to withhold: we never find out how the father died.) I was reminded of that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry’s rabbi notes with sorrow that his brother-in-law died on 9/11, neglecting to mention that the man perished not in the Towers nor on the planes but in fact in a bike accident uptown. But Curb scorns the rabbi’s sanctimonious piggybacking on a tragedy, whereas Leonard and Hungry Paul, well-meaning to its core, treats the moment as gently absurd.

Leonard and Hungry Paul are friends in their mid-30s. At the beginning of the novel, both still live with their parents, with whom they have good relationships. They play board games, drink tea, eat biscuits, and occasionally chat. Strong Frog and Toad vibe, though less gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Leonard writes the texts for 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, a manager for some kind of American conglomerate, is getting married to Andrew, who gives Power Points in Europe’s financial centers and could seem a little blandly good-looking but who gets Grace and 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 school system, ostensibly until she is old enough to get a full pension, but actually because she is a bit scared of what it will be like to be at home with her husband all the time. Peter is a retired economist who makes lame, vaguely risqué jokes sometimes, but actually not all that often, and watches 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.

Leonard works in a mixed open-plan office; like any right-thinking person, he uses noise-canceling headphones to survive this abomination. One day he is pulled out of his work by a girl in a green sweater and cherry-red hair. Shelley, the floor’s fire marshal, is overseeing a fire drill. She dropped out of art school and has an eight-year-old boy and a bike and curlicue handwriting. It’s a lovely meet cute. Leonard thinks she is breathtaking, and one of the plot lines involves their relationship, which hits all the right notes of bittersweet gentleness. A different book would make Leonard abandon Hungry Paul, but, charmingly, the friends continue to get on, Leonard cheering as Hungry Paul finds his own kind of successes: entering a contest designed by the local Chamber of Commerce to find a new send-off for emails (I’d love to share his entry, it’s so perfect, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise); volunteering at the hospital, first at his mother’s insistence but then for the rewards it brings, namely the chance to sit silently with sleeping patients and maybe later have a cup of tea; and finally, through a series of events that are much less implausible in the novel than in my summary, becoming the head of the national association of mimes, which he revives by starting the Quiet Club, half hour sessions at which participants can 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. There are plenty of acute musical references beyond the one to Cage—Hession never lards these on too much; at one point, he makes a little joke about it: Leonard, driving with Helen and Hungry Paul, thinks to himself that both have good taste in music for people who are so non-pushy about it—but it’s Hession’s other job that has left the biggest trace on the novel. Leonard and Hungry Paul manifests the best elements of social work—it’s interested not in pigeonholing or classifying people, but in showing people (to themselves and to others) how they are who they are. It is a stunningly non-judgmental book, perhaps most apparent in its use of the motif of speeches.

Speeches stand in for everything tiresome about the world: they are noise incarnate, no matter the volume at which they are given: canned, shrill, bullying, essentially coercive. (The people at the Chamber of Commerce don’t know what to do when Hungry Paul is asked to speak about his email signature and instead stands contentedly silent before the crowd—they rush in to fill the void.) Speeches aren’t always formal: they can take the form of joking clichés that save people from having to think, like the IT guy in the office who calls Leonard “Lenster.” (Shudder.) Yet the novel ends with what could be thought of as speeches—long outbursts in which the heroes explain themselves to others, Leonard to Shelley and Hungry Paul to Grace. These aren’t speeches, though, because they are spontaneous and offered as a therapist might, to inform rather than to score points. Hungry Paul, in particular—who in a different novel might be named autistic or neuroatypical, but here is just Hungry Paul (a name his family members sometimes follow with a little sigh)—is so reasonable, so aware of his inabilities in practical matters, so kind in his gentle insistence that he has to 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.

You’ll notice how often I’ve used the word “gentle.” You could call Leonard and Hungry Paul sweet, maybe even twee, though these words often get used disparagingly, wrongly in my opinion. Gentle seems just right, certainly better than happy. Reading the novel made me happy, and I think it is a happy novel, but it doesn’t shy away from unhappiness. Besides, couldn’t we all use more gentleness right now? Leonard and Hungry Paul spoke to my soul but without flattering me: it’s not a book about the triumph of the introvert, it never forgets that we are in the world and do ourselves a disservice if we shut it away, although we should always feel free to meet it on our own terms. Hungry Paul’s early claim—“I have always been modestly Hippocratic in my instincts: I wish to do no harm”—is modestly challenged.

Mostly it made me laugh, like real tears-in-the-eyes-might-have-to-pee laughter, which FELT SO GOOD. In the last few years only Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot have done that. 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 manages to surprise at the end. Another one finds Leonard, meeting Shelley in town for their first proper date, in dire need of a bathroom and forced into a McDonalds, where he finds himself purchasing a Happy Meal so that he can get the bathroom code and then eating it for lack of anything better to do just as Shelley arrives.

But there are just as many little jokes, slid in as it were unsuspectingly. Here’s Hungry Paul in his new judo get-up:

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.

(This is Wodehouse-level stuff.)

Here’s Leonard thinking about the man whose name goes on all his work, Mark Baxter, BEd:

Interns from his office just emailed all the changes and feedback, while Mark was away on the conference circuit, presumably sleeping with more interns, the BEd in his title providing a clue as to where he did his best work.

Here’s Hungry Paul trying to get someone to help him in a department store, where he is buying a suit for the wedding:

The shop assistant found a measuring tape from somewhere and started measuring Hungry Paul, using what looked like a self-taught method he had only just invented that second. ‘Eh, I’d say around 36”, short jacket and 38” short for the trousers,’ he guessed, calling out the measurements for E.T.

‘Maybe we’ll just look around. Thanks all the same,’ said Hungry Paul.

The young shop assistant went through some double doors to finish his adolescence.

See what I mean? Gentle. Leonard and Hungry Paul is 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. Let me know if you would like a copy but can’t afford or find one: I’d like to send you one.

Tall Lady, Eating Sandwiches: The Pickwick Papers (Installment 1)

Behold the Stars has organized a readalong of The Pickwick Papers, timed to the publication of its first installment in March 1836. Readalongs and the academic schedule don’t mesh well, but the idea here is to read the book as it was first published, that is, according to its original publishing schedule. It means taking a year and a half to read the book, but I figure even I can manage the 50 pages or so each month.

So I’m giving it a try.

I’m hardly an expert in Dickens, having only read Great Expectations, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby and, long ago, so long ago I remember nothing but that 19th century Madoff Mr. Merdle, Little Dorritt. Oh, and the first third of Our Mutual Friend three times. (Story for another day.) Something about Pickwick always put me off. I had the impression it wasn’t really a novel, or that it was more like something from the 18th rather than the 19th-century. I thought it would be hard.

But I read the first two chapters—the opening installment—over the weekend. They’re wonderful! If the other 700 pages are anything like them, this has got to be one of the greatest English books.

We begin with the proceedings of the Pickwick Club from May 12, 1827, where Samuel Pickwick, Esq., has just triumphed with his presentation of a brilliant paper on the origins of the Hampstead ponds, along with some observations on the creature he calls tittlebats and others persist in calling sticklebacks. So that the Club might continue to promote similar contributions to the study of science, the membership approves the creation of a Corresponding Society, a traveling subset of club members who will report back on their findings and adventures. I assume the rest of the novel will comprise those exploits.

At the head of this group, of course, is Pickwick himself—who I can’t help but picture as Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon, even though I don’t think there’s any suggestion that he’s fat. The one who is fat is Tracy Tupman, ardent yet hapless lover of women everywhere. Joining them are the dreamy poet Augustus Snodgrass and the impetuous sportsman Nathaniel Winkle.

Things get off to a rousing start when the Club makes its first journey, to Rochester in Kent. Mishaps ensue even before they make it to the coaching inn: the cabbie takes exception when Pickwick records in his ever-present notebook the answers to the questions he’s posed to him, mistaking Pickwick’s dedication to increasing the store of human knowledge for the assiduity of an informer looking to find the cabbie in violation of the newly regulated hackney carriage business.


The cabbie, a nervous type, eventually challenges Pickwick and friends to a fight; a melee develops, from which our heroes are rescued only by a man known (so far, anyway) as the stranger, a man who, we learn in due course, is also, it turns out, traveling to Rochester. The stranger—I hope we learn his name, because I sure want him to stick around—has a richly elliptical way of speaking that is pure joy to read. Here he is reflecting, if that is the right word, on recent events at the coach-yard, which has a notoriously low archway:

Terrible place–dangerous work–other day–five children–mother–tall lady, eating sandwiches–forgot the arch–crash–knock–children look round–mother’s head off–sandwich in her hand–no mouth to put it in–head of a family off–shocking, shocking.

“Tall lady, eating sandwiches.” Perfect! The stranger, who might be a reprobate, or more likely simply blithely unconcerned by consequences, one of those people the world can’t seem to touch—maybe he’s a much more intelligent Skimpole?—joins the Club members for dinner once they arrive in Rochester.

A ball is about to begin in the room above the dining room and Tupman can’t stop thinking about the ladies who will soon be arriving. The wine flows freely, the stranger passing the bottle around at every opportunity. Eventually everyone but Tupman and the stranger fall into a stupour. The stranger admits that he too would like to go to the ball, but alas he has nothing to wear. (His belongings have been sent ahead of him; he is leaving England for some inscrutable reason, or maybe for a clearly stated reason that I can’t remember.) Tupman has a brainwave. Winkle has a new evening suit, made especially for members of the club, complete with a button bearing Pickwick’s visage and the letters P.C. to either side.

The suit fits the stranger just fine and the two have an excellent time, especially when the stranger cuts in on a little fat bald man, a Doctor Slammer, who has designs on a rich widow. As the stranger puts it: “Lots of money–old girl–pompous doctor–not a bad idea–good fun.” The stranger makes a fool of the brilliantly named Slammer, but Slammer gets his revenge when the next morning he sends a Second to the inn to challenge the man who insulted him. Of course, the stranger has disappeared and the Second, who doesn’t know the name of the man he wants, is able only to describe his unusual outfit. Said outfit is duly discovered in Winkle’s room, rather the worse for wear, as is Winkle, who can’t remember going to a ball or insulting anyone, but can only look at the state of the suit and assume the accusations are true.

In a state of pitiable terror, Winkle acquiesces to the Second and prepares to fight a duel, which his own second, Snodgrass, feels confident about, given Winkle’s renown as a sportsman. Turns out, although Snodgrass never learns it, that Winkle doesn’t even know how to load a gun and the duel, which threatens to be very grim indeed, turns to comedy when, at the last minute, Slammer realizes that his opponent isn’t the man he wants. The men part amicably, with “cordial farewells,” even arranging to have dinner later. Perhaps the next chapter will include Slammer. Who cares if it doesn’t: Pickwick and the others are more than enough to go on.


I’m sure I’m not saying anything new here, but reading Pickwick I suddenly realized: this is where P. G. Wodehouse comes from. (Wodehouse comes from other things too, of course: Jerome K. Jerome, Edwardian music halls, etc, etc.) There’s that same sense of a world that looks so much like our own but in which nothing bad can ever happen. Mishaps? Of course, there are plenty of those: mistaken identities, swindles, misunderstandings. But they all get resolved, and everything ends with a nice bit of supper. Of course, I could prove to be wrong about all of this. But the ironic narrative voice seems so Wodehousian (or, I suppose, Wodehouse so Dickensian, or, better, Pickwickian). Consider this sentence, for example. The stranger has just idly insulted Tupman, calling him a second-rate Bacchus:

Whether Mr Tupman was somewhat indignant at the peremptory tone in which he was desired to pass the wine which the stranger passed so quickly away; or whether he felt properly scandalized, at an influential member of the Pickwick club being ignominiously compared to a discounted Bacchus, is a fact not yet ascertained.

“An influential member of the Pickwick club,” “is a fact not yet ascertained”—the jokes are all the funnier for the gentleness of the expression here. We can see too that the novel is going to be interested in facts–what counts as one and what are they good for?


When Behold the Stars announced this readalong, Amateur Reader said it would be hard for participants to limit their reading only to the assigned chapters. Too true!

Let’s see if I have the willpower to stick to schedule.