Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

I tend to think I’m not harsh enough on most things I review, but have recently been made aware that this is not an opinion shared by everyone. So for last week’s column I went with a book I could gush about – either from laziness or from a sort of see? see? I don’t hate everything! instinct.

 

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Perhaps there’s nothing quite as tedious as the enthusiast. I have pressed Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies into the hands of friends, accosted them and demanded to read bits out to them, and generally conducted myself in a way that would alarm anyone. Some of them eventually read it, cowed into submission, and have admitted that it is marvellous. But this is not enough. I still mutter angrily about its inexcusable exclusion from the Booker shortlist in the year in which it was published (it did make the longlist) and its failure to win the Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize for comic writing. It’s just not right.

During a doughnut-eating contest with his friend Ruprecht, Daniel “Skippy” Juster falls to the restaurant floor. He manages to write his last words (“tell Lori”) on the floor, using jam from a doughnut, before he dies.

The title of Paul Murray’s book reads like a massive plot spoiler (Skippy dies, Bruce Willis is a ghost, Darth Vader is Luke’s father) but the death that gives Skippy Dies its name takes place at the very beginning of the story.

Skippy and Ruprecht are students at Dublin’s prestigious Seabrook College school. Ruprecht’s main interest is science; Skippy’s is Lori, a beautiful, unattainable girl from a nearby school. Murray takes us through the last weeks of Skippy’s life and the fallout of his death. The book is divided into three volumes – Hopeland and Heartland focus on Skippy and on another character, the colourless history teacher Howard “the Coward”. Ghostland, the final volume, takes place entirely after Skippy’s death and focuses on Ruprecht’s attempts at dealing with the loss of his best friend. Skippy Dies is a school story (at least it draws on the genre) and a tragedy, but it’s something else as well;  a vast, weird story that brings together such disparate elements as string theory, druids, action figures, pop music and Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.

It seems odd that a book about a death should have been nominated for a comic writing prize. But Murray delights in language and takes a particularly Wodehousean joy in metaphor. So we have Father Green (once known to his French –learning students as “Pere Vert”) who travels about with “two or three bodies’ worth of empty space around him, as if …accompanied by pitchfork wielding goblins”. As his title character lies dying, Murray tells us that “Doughnuts scatter the ground like little candied wreaths”.

There’s much about Skippy Dies that is joyful – the sex-obsessed schoolboys and the frequently-dreadful puns, and a masterful account of a school concert that literally brings the roof down.

And yet the book never forgets that it is about the death of a child. “The universe at this moment appears to him as something horrific, thin and threadbare and empty; it seems to know this, and in shame to turn away.”  Murray’s finest achievement is in how he balances the humour and the exuberant language with the tragedy of the horrifying incident that underlies the whole book. Often he shifts swiftly between the two registers, but he’s at his best when he somehow manages to access both at the same time.  An early example of this is a scene in Father Green’s French class in which a student is called upon to explain to the priest some explicit rap lyrics.  This ought to be hilarious and it is, for a while, until it dawns upon us that this boy is breaking down in front of us. Skippy Dies is brutal but never cruel – the concerns of these characters can be trivial or clichéd (Lori’s refuge in sugary pop music; Skippy’s dying wish to tell a girl he barely knows that he loves her) but they are always treated with respect.  We’re not allowed to dismiss these characters. It is this more than anything else that makes the novel emotionally exhausting – it’s also what makes it brilliant.

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