I feel sorry for Paul Murray. His new novel Skippy Dies was released on the same day as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. You might have heard plenty about one of those books over the past few weeks. Though included in the Booker Prize long list, Murray’s novel did not make the Booker short list announced just last week – a week after the book came out in the US. It was such a scandal in Murray’s native Ireland that the front page of the Irish Times decried it a “Booker Blunder.” (It is the only Booker nominated book that I’ve read, so I was really pulling for it.)
Skippy has begun to generate some buzz on this side of the Atlantic though. The Washington Post says, “It’s the ‘Moby-Dick’ of Irish prep schools.” That’s a nod to its length, which the NYT defends noting that novels “as smart and funny and touching as “Skippy Dies” — can be just as long as they like.” Bookslut’s Michael Schaub also recently sang the novel’s praises on NPR. Check out the author’s photo in the story, he looks like he’s 14. I though it was a picture of Skippy. Anyway…
Skippy Dies is actually quite a funny novel considering that we know that Daniel “Skippy” Juster, a 14-year old student at Seabrook College, does in fact die. Not a spoiler. It’s right there on the cover, and Skippy dies in the first few pages of the prologue. What then, is there left to learn? Plenty, it turns out. Chapter 1 takes us back to the beginning when Skippy is very much alive.
Skippy is a smart kid, described as a “bit of a dreamer”, who boards at the school. He generally tries to stay out of trouble, but trouble seems to find him. His roommate, Ruprecht, is an overweight science nerd with poor hygiene and worse social skills. Their cronies include an Italian student, a pair of hip hop wannabes, and others who seem to attract negative attention from older and bigger kids.
The student atmosphere is often raucous and profane – like 14 year old boys. As a graduate of an all boys Catholic high school, I will vouch for the authentic voice of the students that Murray masterfully captures. The dangers of adolescent life surround them – psycho bullies, unsavory drug dealers, adults who don’t have their best interests at heart, the baffling mystery of teenage girls – it’s a daily minefield out there. Despite assurances from grown-ups, 14-year old boys seldom have illusions that violence isn’t often the answer to many of life’s problems:
Violence solves everything, you idiot, look at the history of the world. Any situation they have, they dick around with it for a while, then they bring in violence. That’s the whole reason they have scientists, to make violence more violent.
Seabrook College is the oldest Catholic boy’s secondary school in Ireland. Its graduates are among the country’s elite business leaders and alumni money flows freely to the school. The interim principal, nicknamed “the Automator”, clearly sees the fiscal possibilities. The Automator is actively and not so discreetly looking forward to forcing the priests that have run the school for over a hundred years into the periphery. With the priests sidelined to more spiritual matters, the Automator envisions himself and other business types being better able to leverage the school’s “brand.”
The teachers at Seabrook are like teachers everywhere. They are generally well intentioned, but many are worn out and marking time to retirement. The teacher at Seabrook’s that readers get to know best is a “kidult,” a grown-up who has never quite taken to the adult world. Howard “the Coward” Fallon had his own Seabrook trauma to overcome and has failed at his first career, fiance. He’s been taken back into the Seabrook fold to teach history. His classes stutter hilariously at first, until Howard is motivated by the hot new geography teacher to get his boys interested in actually learning history.
What Skippy Dies does better than any book that I can think of is explore the hell that is adolescence from the male perspective. One moment, you’re king of the world, but video games, lighting farts and other social currency of male youth are suddenly worthless when girls arrive on the scene. Bigger kids suddenly want to pummel you for no apparent reason. But that’s just the beginning of the rude awakening that awaits teenagers everywhere:
Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg — that your future will not be the rollercoaster ride that you’d imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing the dishes, going to the dentist, weekend trips to the DIY store to buy floor-tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life.’ Now, with every day that passes, another door seems to close, the one marked PROFESSIONAL STUNTMAN, or FIGHT EVIL ROBOT, until as the weeks go by and the doors — GET BITTEN BY SNAKE, SAVE WORLD FROM ASTEROID, DISMANTLE BOMB WITH SECONDS TO SPARE — keep closing, you begin to hear the sound as a good thing, and start closing some yourself, even ones that didn’t necessarily need to be closed…
Skippy’s death is in many ways symbolic of the death of childhood that the teen years bring to an abrupt and often cruel end. The final third of the novel deals with the impact of Skippy’s death on the school community. The reasons for Skippy’s death are slowly revealed, and the answers are suddenly not as clear cut as may have first appeared.
This is a fantastic novel. It may be the best book I’ve read all year. It’s smart and funny, sad and haunting – throughout it all, Murray somehow consistently hits all the right notes. I loved it, but then this novel may appeal to me in ways that it doesn’t to others. I went to an ancient Catholic boys high school, and I was a teenage boy. Will this novel appeal to, say, women who went to public school? My guess is that women and teenage girls may not find as much to identify with here as I did. Virtually all women are portrayed badly, be they dowager teachers, hot teachers, conniving teen girls, mothers – almost all come up short. I’d be interested to hear what female readers think of the book. For me though, this novel is going straight to the top of my best books of 2010 list.
Audio Bonus: The song that kept coming through my head while reading Skippy Dies was The Smiths The Headmaster Ritual, even though the song is about Manchester schools. Morrissey’s whine, “I want to go home/I don’t want to stay/write off education/as a bad mistake,” could have been written by Skippy.
The Smiths The Headmaster Ritual