Last Christmas, while purportedly shopping for presents for everyone else, I picked up a book called Skippy Dies by Paul Murray from the shelf at Politics and Prose. I had
skimmed a glowing review of the novel while searching for good books to buy–something about a boarding school and a boy who dies in the first few pages, which proves correct, but after the short first chapter, in which Skippy indeed expires, comes a chapter describing the intense boredom of a male character in the midst of a history class during the last period of the day, a character who turns out to be not a moody student but the teacher! I read that far in the store, and I was hooked. Bought the book, and promptly put it on the shelf with the other many, many books waiting to be read. (I believe I can honestly say I now have more unread books than I can possibly get to in my lifetime! *Sigh*)
But summer does come, and Skippy jumped off the shelf. I devoured the over 600 pages in about two weeks. What a masterpiece! One of the funniest sad books I have ever read. (Catch 22 is another–begins hysterically and then circles and circles the tragedy at its heart). Skippy Dies, set at a Catholic boys school called Seabrook College in Dublin, presents the story of Skippy, his band of friends, the girls from St. Brigid’s next door, various teachers and priests, even the staff of Ed’s doughnut shop among others. It begins with Skippy’s death, flashes back to the month or so beforehand, and ends with the aftermath.
The author, Murray, nails the fourteen-year-old male psyche perfectly. All the bravado of sexual banter by inexperienced and inept boys. The way they rag on each other about everything. Not only that, but Murray gets the dynamic of schools–scenes in the teachers’ lounge or at the pub with a group of teachers after work, wistful boys in love with girls out of their league. Fights, drugs, a sociopath, but also dances and dreams, boys winning the next level of a video game, teachers wandering in the fog of midterm ennui.
And of course, he has that rare Irish way with the language. His descriptions shimmer. Here, in the second chapter of the novel, he describes students right at the moment school lets out:
“In Our Lady’s Hall, hormonal surges have made giants and midgets of the crowd. The tang of adolescence, impervious to deodorant or opened windows, hangs heavy, and the air tintinnabulates with bleeps, chimes and trebly shards of music as two hundred mobile phones, banned during the school day, are switched back on with the urgency of divers reconnecting to their oxygen supply.” (12)
Anyone standing at the entrance of a school as the last bell rings recognizes the truth in that paragraph. The novel, full of such delicious passages, sings.
But the novel goes even farther. It dives onto quantum physics and the meaning of life. One teacher, delving into the history of WWI (stupidest conflict ever and also one of the most lethal), comes to see the entrenched warfare of that conflict as a metaphor for life; as a bonus for someone like me, who teaches a War and Lit class, the novel makes repeated references to Robert Graves’ WWI memoir Goodbye to All That. The tubby, smart Ruprecht, Skippy’s roommate, enthuses about the marvels of string theory and then clings to it as long as he can to allay his grief over Skippy, hoping against hope that alternate universes will save his friend, save us. When he realizes it can’t, we all want to cry with him, and he wants to give up, but, like all of us in life, he figures out how to take the next step and the one after that, un-quantum though they must always be.
A true marvel of a read!