I didn’t plan to read this book for Reading Ireland Month 2021, it just worked out that way. I might even squeak in during the appropriate week, as March 1st through 7th is dedicated to Contemporary Irish Novels. Which this certainly is. Though it didn’t feel that way while reading; it seemed rather timeless and placeless. I can’t tell if Leonard and Hungry Paul live in a big city or a small town, let alone whether they actually live in Ireland or in the UK. References to “lollipop ladies” and “sweets” only give me a very general idea, geographically. Leonard’s open-concept workplace feels pretty urban, but then, the Chamber of Commerce holding a contest is a big event that everyone’s talking about, which feels painfully small-town. As for contemporariness, the contest in question involves inventing a new way to sign off emails, so we’re squarely in the 21st century, and people have phones, but no one spends much time online. And I suspect that guys like Leonard and Hungry Paul would probably be at least somewhat, if not Extremely, Online.
Or perhaps not. Leonard and Hungry Paul are, to varying degrees, operating outside of society. So perhaps it makes sense that we don’t know exactly where and when they are situated, as they probably don’t feel too grounded in their particular time and place either. The plot, such as it is, follows the thirty-something friends as they make tentative steps into society, one in the expected way (a new romance) and one… not (it involves mimes).
Hilariousness does ensue. This is a very funny book, in a quiet and not at all snarky way. Hession pokes fun at his heros, but we never feel embarrassed for them. Nor are there any real antagonists to deride or ridicule. I guess Hession’s target is the benign ridiculousness of modern life, and he uses two characters who don’t quite understand it all themselves to show us how bizarre it is. Sometimes the humour didn’t quite land with me (a joke about expiry dates and grocery stores was way too drawn out), but sometimes it was perfect (the running gag about Leonard accidentally wearing a pajama top to work and possibly starting a trend.)
It’s best that I didn’t read many reviews before diving in. I only read this rave and didn’t even read it the whole way through it, as I felt it was getting to specific (I wouldn’t say spoilery) and I wanted to wait and read it myself. Had I looked into the broader critical response to L&HP, and found it was being classified as “up lit”, I probably would have backed away. “Up lit” puts me in mind of Matt Haig, or books with titles like The Untimely Life and Loves of Quirkily Named Character, Who Is Doing Quite Well, Thanks. In the end, I found it more poignant than unlifting. There’s a happy and hopeful ending, but I do wonder how our hapless heros are going to fare through middle age, honestly.
Though focused on a male friendship, there are actually women in this book. Which is great… kind of. Leonard’s late mother is described as patient, kind, thoughtful; a perfect mother. Hungry Paul’s mother is, similarly, endlessly patient and accommodating. Leonard’s (maybe) girlfriend is another saintly mother, totally devoted to her son, while also verging on manic pixie dreamgirl-dom. And then there’s Hungry Paul’s sister, who gets so much narrative space I was confused as to why the book wasn’t called Leonard and Hungry Paul and Grace. She’s a bit more nuanced than the mother figures, but falls into several stock female character types (bridezilla, bossy older sister, stressed out career woman). As a perceptive review in the Irish Times puts it, the women don’t “get to participate in the triumph,” as they’re too busy playing out their assigned roles. They don’t get to opt out.
But I suppose there’s a whole genre of women opting out of the mainstream in quirky ways. Once the hype dies down, maybe I’ll try Convenience Store Woman, or even Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. In the meantime, Leonard and Hungry Paul are completely fine as well, and that’s fine with me.