On a fateful day, a nameless little boy is born. The boy is undersized, maligned as a misshapen monster, and treated like a burden by nearly everyone who laid eyes on him. His world is small, like him, and cruel, very unlike him. Optimistically named “Hug” by the one man at the orphanage who offers him any kindness, he goes on to live a strange, meandering, and extraordinary life. Not because of extraordinary events, but because he is an extraordinary boy.
Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Boy is not at all what it seems. That might seem like a simple observation, but when you’re dealing with a book that plays with the very concept of “appearance,” it reveals a deeper cleverness lurking within. Like The Elephant Man who inspired him, Hug Chickenpenny is seen as monstrous, ill-made, and contemptible, simply because of his appearance. And yet, the polite society that surrounds him reveals the corrupt, selfish, spiteful truth behind its polite facade when it turns its disdainful eye upon him.
And, much like the society it rightly castigates, the book itself plays with appearances to reveal deeper truths. It wraps itself in Dickensian dress — rich benefactors, soul-crushing orphanages, advantageous con men, mysterious ailments, quack doctors — and, yet, it’s a distinctly modern story, rich with rocket ships and television shows. Zahler uses those Victorian-era tropes to put the reader in the mindset of that sort of whelp underdog story, to predispose the reader to expect certain things. Hell, the vocabulary itself goes beyond Dickens (and into hyperbolic Lovecraftian ridiculousness) before settling down into a more relaxed narrative. It’s as if the entire goal of the book is to wrong-foot the reader from the get-go, challenging the easy assumptions we’d make.
Considering how many assumptions are made about the main character, it’s a brilliant way to make us empathize with Hug. His world doesn’t quite make sense, not in its cruelty or its capriciousness, but we, like Hug, muddle through. And, through it all, through callousness and artifice and the shifting sands of fate and chance, Hug remains pure. Kind. He is a wonderful character, a child often without the good fortunes of other fictional orphans, yet remaining forever optimistic. Aspirational.
Forgive my long-windedness, reader, but I can’t simply recommend this book based on an evocative cover or a brief plot summary. What makes the book so worthwhile is its surprising depth, its clever way of throwing “ugliness” back in the faces of those who would judge others “ugly” for being different. Hug Chickenpenny may strike familiar beats for many readers, but it manages to feel immensely fresh and engaging, regardless. By the time you turn that last page and the only conclusion that would possibly fit has come and gone, your mind will still linger on Hug and his strange journey. And you wouldn’t have it any other way.
S. Craig Zahler