But here's a thing. Today's book is being regularly cited as perfect reading for those in self-isolation who need bucking-up, because it's a gentle, kindly, humane fiction that offers an alternative to current news narratives. I agree up to a point, although I'm with Beckett when he says 'the syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation'. Books offer a distraction as much as any consolation. But with theatres, cinemas, concert halls, museums, galleries and bookshops now either closed or about to close we're being thrown back on our own resources. Hence this blog.
Who are the great male pairings in fiction? Don Quixote and Sancho Panza? Bouvard and Pécuchet? Holmes and Watson? Jeeves and Wooster? Vladimir and Estragon, or perhaps Mercier and Camier?
They are durable, much-loved characters but it's hard to imagine any of them as solo acts. Together they make up a complete entity, if you like - Bertie without Jeeves would be a twit merely (although a twit with a supernatural gift for comic narrative); Holmes without Watson is (as we discover in the one Conan Doyle story written from the detective's perspective) a terrible story-teller.
I'll to add the eponymous Leonard and Hungry Paul to that distinguished list. Rónán Hession's novel, published by Bluemoose Books in March 2019, is an account of a friendship between two very modest and unremarkable thirty-something men. It has a gentle, unforced warmth and wit that I found irresistible (and I'm picky).
Hession explores the kind of genial male sodality that featured in The Detectorists, the telly programme which Adam Mars-Jones reckoned was the best pastoral comedy since As You Like It, (written - I just checked - in 1599).
Paul (we never find out why he's called Hungry) is perhaps the most unremarkable lead character in literature. Leonard, on the other hand, is a relative firecracker - he writes entries for children's encyclopaedias. There's a risk, consistently avoided, that placing such humdrum characters at the heart of any novel might result in . . . well, a humdrum novel. That doesn't happen, thanks to Hession's light and engaging style, his gentle breeziness and affection for his characters, his absolute lack of condescension.
He is also a very funny writer indeed, and there really is something about this novel that speaks to our current predicament. Leonard, we told, chooses not to go out because “nothing made him feel lonelier these days than the thought of spending time in the company of extroverts”.
Buy Leonard and Hungry Paul from the publisher Bluemoose Books here.