Posted by: Jeanie F | October 7, 2010

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

It’s not exactly a spoiler to tell you that in Paul Murray’s new novel Skippy, well, Skippy dies. Not only does the title tell it all, but since Skippy meets his demise  in the very first chapter, it’s all out there pretty early. All that’s left to find out is who Skippy is, and how and why he dies. It’s a pretty interesting story.

Skippy, nee Daniel Juster, is a fourteen-year old boy attending Seabrook College, an exclusive boys’ school in Dublin. While Skippy is no Holden Caufield, the boys’ school elements will sometimes remind you of an updated Pencey Prep with the various personalities and interplay between the students. Skippy is not angry or alienated in the way that Holden is – he’s a shy loner lost in the crowd of more accomplished or assertive boys. His major accomplishment is winning a swim meet, but rather than bringing him pride or pleasure, it mounts pressure from his coach to repeat the performance. He has a difficult situation at home, the Acting Principal at Seabrook has it in for him and, to top this off, he falls in love. Here, as the saying goes, the plot thickens. Skippy’s attempt to navigate the course of young love will make you laugh and break your heart. You will remember and reflect on your own first love. You will want to fall on your knees in gratitude that you no longer have to live in the world of adolescence with its turmoil, confusion, and cruelty.

Along with Skippy, the book is filled with an assortment of interesting, entertaining, and/or frustrating characters. The boys – from sex-starved Mario to super-brainy Ruprecht – come with all the oddities of adolescent boys. Murray makes them real and touching without depending on stereotype. In one of the funniest passages in this very funny book, we get a sense of the author’s understanding and compassion for the contradictions of this stage in a boy’s life. Preparing for an audition for the school’s talent show, Trevor Hickey demonstrates his talent for lighting his farts on fire – a talent that has won him the respect of his peers and the title, “The Duke”. However, rather than letting Trevor revel in his glory, author Paul Murray gives us a glimpse of the road ahead for these boys:

As the juggernaut of puberty gathers momentum, quirks and oddities and singularities turn from badges of honour to liabilities to be concealed, and the same realpolitik that moves boys to forsake long-nurtured dreams of, say, becoming a ninja for a more concerted attention to the here and now, forces others, who once were worshipped as gods, to reinvent themselves as ordinary Joe Blows. . . in five years’ time, as they prepare to leave school, how many of the crowd who applaud him now while he takes his bows . . . will remember that Trevor Hickey was once known as “The Duke”? 

It is this underlying presence of “the future” that takes Skippy Dies beyond the purely amusing to the profound. We readers are reminded that this passage in a boy’s life is brief, that the demands of real life wait around the corner, and much of what makes each of them unique is going to be pounded out of them by the “real world”. It’s heartbreaking and, in some ways, we might feel that Skippy goes out on top.

We see the students set against the faculty, which is as weird – in many ways weirder – than the teenage boys. Most notably we watch their history teacher, Howard “The Coward” Fallon struggle with the demands of adulthood. An alum of Seabrook, Howard failed in the business world and returned to Seabrook to teach. His personal life is in shambles but, over the course of the book, we watch Howard transform into a dedicated and passionate teacher. However, as he struggles to bring history alive, he is foiled by his principal, who admonishes him to stick to the dull and uninspired text. He tells Howard:

These dead facts on a page, as you call them, are the same ones that your class are going to reproduce in their exam papers next year. Engaging the boys is all well and good, but your job first and foremost is to get those facts off the page and into their brains by any means necessary. Not to start confusing them with a whole slew of new facts.

As a former teacher myself, this sounded to me a whole lot like No Child Left Behind. I was pleased to see Howard ultimately subvert his principal’s directions for the benefit of his students. Howard wasn’t such a coward after all.

This is a long book but, for my money, one well worth the investment of time. As Michael Shaub writes for NPR, “Reading Skippy Dies is a lot like reading a Saki story as interpreted by Neil Jordan (who is scheduled to write and direct the film adaptation of this novel) — which is to say, it’s deeply funny, deeply weird and unlike anything you’ve ever encountered before.”

Grade: A


Responses

  1. I do really want to read this. Out of the Booker long list this one, Room and C were the ones that most appealed

  2. I have C in the line-up, too. Looks really interesting! I’ve downloaded a sample onto my Kindle to see what I think.

  3. I really enjoyed this book. I flew through the 660 odd pages, but ironically, found the pace of the book slowing down in the penultimate and final sections.

    • I had the same response. Once I knew Skippy’s story, I didn’t particularly care about the rest.

  4. You do make a convincing argument for this book. I do want to read it, but over 600 pages? I see “The Fnkler Question” just won the Booker.

    • It’s 600 pages – but a surprisingly fast read! Not sure I’m interested in “The Finkler Question” – need to learn a little more about it.

  5. I thought that Skippy Dies really deserved its place on the Booker Longlist. One thing that is worth mentioning is that in places it is an extremely funny novel. There were times when it made me laugh out loud, but there are also some poignant sections too. Well worth taking on the 600 pages.

    • I agree – in fact, I was surprised it didn’t make the Booker Short List. I haven’t read The Finkler Question, but was it really that much better than Skippy Dies?

      • It would have deserved a place on the short list certainly. The Finkler Question is still on my shelf, so at the moment I can’t judge that.


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