Completely Different

Two Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

LEONARD AND HUNGRY PAUL. By Rónán Hession. Bluemoose Books 2021.

ISBN: 1-910422-75-4 / 978-1-910422-75-5 (UK edition)

RRP: $24.23

And now, as they say, for something completely different. Here is a book that breaks all the rules, a story that dares to say that there are ordinary people who do not kill or cheat on their partners or behave in some way that may require the involvement of police or tax inspectors. A book about ordinary people, boring people if you must. People like you and me.

The two eponymous men who give the book its title are comfortable virgins in their early thirties. Leonard works as a writer for a successful set of encyclopedias for young readers. Hungry Paul – we never learn the reason for that adjective – is unemployed, but gets regular Monday work ‘as a casual postman covering for some malingering lush at the depot.’ The two men are friends, each ‘naturally and happily introverted.’ They meet occasionally at Hungry Paul’s house where they form a four with that man’s parents to play Scrabble or some similar board game.

Paul’s sister Grace is getting married and it is all hands in preparation. Her husband-to-be is a perfect gentleman; they are to be married in a church, though neither family is particularly religious. When they visit this ‘place of incense, candles and exhaled prayers’ to prepare the flowers, Leonard helps out. ‘Though not a believer, he admired the Passion as a piece of epic and timeless storytelling.’ The wedding and reception are complete successes; no one says or does anything wrong, no one gets drunk, though Hungry Paul has the morning-after effects of too much Lucozade.

And that’s it. That’s the story in a nutshell, but the delight is in the writing, the completely perfect prose, almost as if from an earlier age where authors did not allow their characters to use bad language and avoided any suggestion of intimacy between people. At one stage, Leonard begins an awkward relationship with a girl named Shelley. It is not an affair in the way that most writers use the word, more like ‘a practice relationship with the stabilizers on, underwritten by an unspoken agreement not to hurt each other.’ He is far too tongue-tied to suggest that she is as much as his girlfriend, while she is sensitive about her seven-year old son lest the child take a dim view of another person in his mother’s life.

There are many delightful little vignettes of other characters in the story. Hungry Paul’s dad is a retired economist. ‘He was bald, though it was as though his baldness had been caused by gravity, with the hair drawn from his scalp into his head, now tufting out of his ears, nose and eyebrows.’ In another incident, Paul is upset that his mother has been sold chocolates which have passed their use-by date and takes up the matter with the supermarket. ‘He was a man who normally stood as a weir, letting the world wash over and through him, but on this occasion he felt the pedantic sanctimony of one who is offended on others’ behalf.’

It is a delight to find a book about the kind of people that dramatic things do not happen to, people who treat each other with respect, who do not swear or use bad language or tell dirty jokes. Can such people be the subject of a story? Oh, yes they can and this is the best you will find. Signs on, the book by a musician, first time author and Irish civil servant has won widespread praise.

It is not clear where the story is set. In acknowledgements at the end, the author thanks the staff at Baldoyle library in Dublin, but the book was published by a small company in England and subsequently taken up by bigger ones.

One final point. This is not a book to be read if you are drifting off to lockdown sleep or passing a quiet hour at the seaside. It needs close attention, not so much for the story as for the sparkling prose. Read it slowly and marvel at what the English language is capable of.

PANENKA. By Rónán Hession. Bluemoose Books 2021. 166pp.

ISBN: SBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1910422673

RRP: $18.61

A panenka is a cheeky way of scoring from the penalty spot in football: instead of blasting in the hope the goalkeeper will go the wrong way, you chip it gently, hopefully over his diving body. It is named after a Czechoslovak player who did just that to beat Germany in the European cup final of 1976. The problem of course is that it requires skill on the part of the kicker and speed on the part of the goalie; in this book, the second part of that equation was missing. The player attempting to score was named Joseph and his kick landed on the chest of the slowly moving keeper; henceforth Joseph would be known as Panenka.

The book is not at all about football, but rather about the future life of Joseph and those close to him. The story is set 25 years after that panenka, by which stage his marriage has failed as has that of his daughter, whose husband owns a rundown bar occasionally visited by Joseph. Still aged only 50, he begins a tentative relationship with Esther, herself recovering from a broken-down relationship. The book examines each of these three affairs, mostly with careful dialogue as the participants come to terms with their current situation. The language is gentle, there are no raised voices, no vulgar language, just people trying to work out where they may have gone wrong and how they might do things differently.

The writing is elegant, not the kind one normally meets in modern stories about broken romances. These are old fashioned one-time lovers and though the phrase is mercifully not used, they want to ‘move on’ in the hope that a new opportunity has been presented to them. Joseph is only now learning to live with the scorn at his missed penalty, only to find himself suffering from mysterious pains. ‘But illness meant dependency. It was society’s last chance to push the benefits of membership.  … His mind became a parliament of factions.’

Around the time that I read this book, there was some discussion about the way that a young English footballer was treated after failing to score from a penalty in the European Cup final. That footballers can suffer from something like this is a terrible reflection on human nature. In this book, we see one such person who has reached a stage of acceptance of his lot. He recalls his coach whose ‘philosophy was that of a Jesuit, building players from the inside and instilling in them a spiritual love of football.’ The reader will finish the book with a feeling of optimism.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán Editorial Collective