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July 29, 2010

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, Hamish Hamilton, $32.95

Do you ever love a book so much that you almost don’t want to read it, because reading it means getting closer to the end, and then you’ll be finished, and you’ll have to read something else, something that isn’t this book that you love so much? I recently found myself in this awkward situation. The book in question is Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, a brilliantly insightful and witty trip through the staffrooms and classrooms of an elite Dublin boys’ school.

At over 600 pages, this is something of a panoramic and ambitious trip: with a bulging cast of characters and several overlapping plot strands, Murray advances boldly into the thickets of Weighty Novelistic Themes, cutting his scythe through love, loss, courage, hope, and identity as he forges the path of his epic tragicomedy in the strange no-man’s-land between adolescence and adulthood.

It all starts with a doughnut-eating competition between Seabrook students and roommates Ruprecht Van Doren, overweight boy genius with an obsessive interest in M-theory, and the eponymous (and doomed) Skippy, a quietly troubled fourteen-year-old whose buck teeth give him an unfortunate resemblance to a certain crime-fighting marsupial.

The tragic denouement of the doughnut-eating competition is like a stone cast into a lake of stories: rippling outwards from Skippy’s quiet expiry on the floor of Ed’s Doughnut House are overlapping plot circles that gradually reveal the desires, fears, and secrets of Seabrook’s staff and students. The panorama unfolds from the start of the school year, when Skippy falls for Lori, impossibly beautiful frisbee player from St Brigid’s, the girls’ school next door; Howard the history teacher falls for the ravishing new Geography substitute, who has ‘clavicles like parts of some impossible beautiful musical instrument’; Ruprecht sets himself the task of understanding M-theory (so complicated that ‘no can agree what the M is for’) and accessing a parallel dimension; school reprobates Carl and Barry attempt to start a drug-dealing ring by Ritalin pills to St Brigid’s girls as ‘diet pills’; and Greg ‘the Automator’ Costigan, Acting Principal, plans a memorial concert for hospital-bound Principal, Father Desmond Furlong, before the old man’s even died. Everything, somehow, is tied to Skippy’s death, the repercussions of which stretch out to the dramatic conclusion of the school year.

I love high school stories, but it’s only since reading Skippy Dies that I’ve started to consider why they can be so fascinating and affecting. High schools—especially boarding schools, such as Murray’s Seabrook College—are oddly skewed microcosms of adult life, funhouse mirror reflections of the Real World. School was a place where you tried to discern a shape in the lump of clay that you were allegedly supposed to begin forging yourself from, while parents and teachers either told you what you could be or what you would never amount to. What Murray captures so brilliantly is that peculiar suspension of being fourteen, when the possibilities seem endless and the future limitless, versus the slowly creeping encroachment of Real Life, with its dentist trips and mortgage payments and microwave dinners. Surveying the throbbing mass of students at the annual Halloween dance, Howard, an ex-Seabrook man, ‘imagines his boys in twenty years’ time, with thinning hair, beer guts, photos in their wallets of children of their own. Is everyone in the world at the same game, trying to pass himself off as something he is not?’

Despite its length, I found myself rationing my reading every time I picked up this book; I just didn’t want it to end. For all of its themes and characters, this is a hugely ambitious novel, but it’s also a wonderfully funny—Murray is a master of teenage dialogue—and deeply affecting. It’s also just been longlisted for the Booker, which means that I will be requisitioning multiple copies at work and chewing customers’ ears about it until they use the book to beat me around the head with.

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