Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Paul Murray writes an astonishing novel about Irish schoolboys.

I am not sure where I read a review of this novel, but it sounded interesting enough. In the end, I think I would have to say that it is very close to being great.

Skippy Dies

Poor young Skippy, a fourteen-year-old Irish schoolboy, dies in the opening chapter of Paul Murray’s first novel, Skippy Dies (672 pages, Faber & Faber, $28), but then the author takes us back to some months before this tragedy, and he leads us up to it—the death it no less tragic for our knowing that it is about to happen—and then takes us beyond. The action transpires in a private Catholic boy’s school called Seabrooks.

Before we are far into this enormously long novel—Murray has the Irish gift of long-windedness, to be sure, and I for one would like to see the novel a few hundred pages shorter—we know several of the students, some teachers, and the Acting Principal.

The latter figure, Greg, a lay teacher and alumnus who has risen to this position when the priest who is head of the school falls ill, is about as immediately antipathetic a character to have appeared in fiction in some time. Always feeling that he knows what is best for the school, he clearly hates the teachers, the priests especially, the boys, and even the school itself. His only true interest is his own advancement.

He is contrasted to Howard, a feckless History teacher, another alumnus, who has returned to the school after a failed career in finance. Howard lives with an American girl, Halley, but he is bored in his relationship and bored with his job. He is bored, that is, until a substitute geography teacher comes to the school and he enters a romantic fantasy from which he can hardly escape.

While Greg plots against the most vulnerable students and Howard bumbles through his pathetic life, we are endlessly entertained by the goings-on of a group of boys who are eccentric in the ways that cause kids to be ostracized in high school. Rupert, an overweight whiz kid who obsesses with scientific attempts to break through to other dimensions, and his roommate Skippy, a slight but handsome kid who has won some trophies at swimming, form the center of an odd group consisting of Denis, a world-weary fourteen-year-old who seems only to be going through the paces of being a student or a friend; Mario, a sexual braggart who is all talk and no action; and several other likable if utterly gullible young men who hang around and get into mischief. This is close because all of them are boarders, and all of them show signs of feeling abandoned by their families.

Murray has a great gift for creating the language of these kids. Every conversation, every text, every phone message rings true. It is shocking how desperate these kids are; but when we see them popping pills and getting drunk, we realize that their lives are falling to pieces before their eyes.

We meet some girls too, from St. Briget’s, the girl’s school next door. And they are just as bad, if not worse. Lori, the girl with whom Skippy falls in love, is usually high on something or other, and they spend their first evening together, after a disastrous Halloween “Hop,” popping pills and taking drags on Rupert’s asthma inhaler. In spite of this, though, they manage to touch each other emotionally, and what they do with those feelings are part of the subject of the novel.

There is so much else one could talk about too. Rupert’s string theories are provocative and complex; Howard gets interested in the role of Irish soldiers in World War I; video games, role-playing, all sorts of student adventures abound: there is no end to what Murray finds interesting and what he can make entertaining. This is one of the best tragicomic schoolboy novels I have ever read. If I wished it could be a little shorter, that is just so that other folks might read it too.

I read somewhere that Neil Jordan is making a film of this novel. That would be exciting.

Paul Murray

Skippy Dies is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

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