BY SEAN CLARK
[This sprawling novel is a C4 Great Read.]
Author: Paul Murray
2010, Faber & Faber
Filed Under: Literary.
This book is touching, hilarious, depressing, fun, and profanely honest. Skippy Dies bores right to the core of its many characters, all of whom live, work, or learn at Seabrook College, a Catholic boarding school for boys outside of Dublin. Murray moves between perspectives fluidly and often brilliantly, at times I felt I was reading a more-accessible Joyce. At many points a picaresque or coming-of-age joint with a multiple-character lens, the novel (which is a big one at almost 700 pages) tackles some hefty stuff. Namely it’s about the transition from childhood to adulthood in a world with an infrastructure that seems increasingly incompatible with each new generation.
Murray accomplishes this from a variety of angles at once, and by incorporating many themes. In that regard, this book reminded me a bit of Freedom. If I had read Skippy Dies last winter when we were picking Best Books 2010, it would have taken my top spot. Though the style and setting are very, very different, it pushes–at its heart–some of these same core buttons as Franzen’s opus, and does a better job.
Skippy, whose real name is Daniel Juster, is a bit of a runt. He’s a 14 year-old virgin boarding student on anxiety pills (which make him vomit) because of a fragile family life. He dies on the floor of a doughnut shop on page 5.
The book then goes back a semester and for the next 400 or so pages Skippy lives. In one way or another, and often without his having done anything and without his knowledge, doomed Skippy is the center of the web that interconnects all the inhabitants of Seabrook. It happens directly, as in the case of Skippy’s roomate, Ruprecht van Doren, the eccentric fat kid obsessed with theoretical physics that the other peers only tolerate because Skippy is generally liked, or Carl, the drug-addicted, self-mutilating bully who becomes his rival in love.
It also happens indirectly. The interim principal (a control-obsessed blowhard referred to as “the Automator”) sees Skippy as a subversive frondeur destined for trouble and marked for expulsion. Howard Fallon, the history teacher, sees him as a good boy, if a bit confused. The Automater never speaks to the Skippy, and Howard doesn’t see–and perhaps never understands–the deep similarities he shares with the boy. And it goes on.
This book is full of vivid characters. It is often quite funny, and just as often quite dark, even stomach-churning. The strength of Murray’s writing is his ability to create both aesthetics simultaneously, and to do so while building an elaborate plot around a keystone the title tells us will be yanked free. As the book passes halfway point, the plot achieves an unstoppable momentum, like a boulder crashing down a hill towards a glass building. Skippy dies in part because of an elaborate set of circumstances that could easily have been avoided had anyone as much knowledge as the reader. It’s a brilliant example of dramatic irony done right.
And then the titular boy is dead and there’s 200-odd pages to go.
The emotional resonance Murray achieves in this final act is powerful, to say the least. With Skippy gone, the whole school, even those that had never even met the kid, falls into a tailspin. Teachers lose their classrooms and their personal lives, friends bicker and pull apart, the rival and the girl (Lori) go off the deep end. Skippy leaves behind an enormous void no one realized he filled. I don’t want to say more or be more specific, because I don’t want to spoil anything. But the ending is big and beautiful and perfectly imperfect.
Skippy Dies is an excellent book, and I recommend it to just about every sort of reader.
Similar Reads: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce), A Separate Peace (Knowles), Freedom (Franzen) Catcher in the Rye (Salinger)