Apart from being a genius, which he is, Ruprecht does not have all that much going for him. A hamster-cheeked boy with a chronic weight problem, he is bad at sports and most other facets of life not involving complicated mathematical equations; that is why he savors his doughnut-eating victories so, and why, even though Skippy has been on the floor for almost a minute now, Ruprecht is still sitting there in his chair, chuckling to himself and saying, exultantly, under his breath, ‘Yes, yes’ — until the table jolts and his Coke goes flying, and he realizes that something is wrong.
That introduction from the first two paragraphs of Paul Murray’s novel tells you a lot about the book set in and around Seabrook College, a Catholic boys school in Dublin. Skippy will be dead in moments. Despite having his name in the title, this book will not be a “star” vehicle about a central character but rather an ensemble production and Ruprecht will be every bit as important as Skippy — and there will be others who are almost as important as those two to the story. Perhaps more important for the reader, the excerpt shows that Murray has a taste for the absurd (or, at the very least, tangential takeoffs from the apparently obvious) which he doesn’t hesitate to indulge, to substantial comic effect.
Regular visitors here will know that I am a sucker for the school novel (for an extended discussion, see my review — and the comments that followed — of Tobias Wolff’s Old School). Which means that I should like Skippy Dies — and my impression was definitely on the positive side of neutral with this latest addition to the genre.
When it was released earlier this year, Murray’s book attracted attention mainly for its format — three paperback volumes in a slipcover. That is not just a gimmick: at 650+ pages overall, it would be a weighty tome in one volume. And not only does the content of the book break naturally into three distinct “volumes”, the format has the advantage of making the book seem “shorter” (don’t ask me why — it just does). Now that the book is out in two formats in North America, readers have an option, although it may take some searching to find the three volume version — for my money, even as a fan of hardcover books, it is worth the search.
In book one (the funniest of the three), “Hopeland”, Murray takes some time to fully introduce and deveop his extensive cast, a tactic that gives full rein to his idosyncratic humor and offers the opportunity for a number of hilarious set pieces. In plot terms, “Hopeland” features Skippy’s discovery of “the frisbee girl”, Lori, at the girls’ school next door (through the use of Ruprecht’s telescope) and concudes with his complete infatuation.
In book two (the darkest and slowest of the three), “Heartland”, Skippy pursues his infatuation, with mixed success. Murray delves deeper into the activities of the featured students and staff (that’s what makes it slow) as he sets up book three. The second volume ends with Skippy’s death.
He is however still very much present in memory and as motivation in book three, “Ghostland”, when Murray’s humor returns in suitably black (but still very funny) form. The painstakingly laid plot lines that were part of the problem in book two are all closed in suitably satisfying fashion.
For this reader it is the characters which are the strength of Murray’s novel. They come in three sets: casts of both students and staff are fully developed, parents somewhat less so. Not only does the author make them real, he carefully develops and exploits the inevitable tensions between their inherent sets of conflicting interests.
Skippy (real name Daniel Juster) is an affable but hardly memorable sort, middling at pretty much everything involved in school — academics, sport, video games, social relations. Precisely because of that, he becomes the central figure (but definitely not leader) of the group with whom he hangs. Everybody else is much better at something, but nobody is averagely as good at as many things so he is a necessary component of holding the group together.
Ruprecht, his roommate, is by far the smartest pupil in the school, always first to raise his hand. He is obsessed with the idea of eleven- or twelve-dimensional worlds and the prospect of going to Stanford, the home of Professor Tamashi, originator of M-Theory, so obscure that no one knows what the M stands for. He is also fat and socially inept — were it not for Skippy speaking up on his behalf, he would not have a friend in the school. Because of Skippy, he has access to a gang to help him test his crazy inventions and theories.
The gang has about six members, but I’ll only describe one other, Dennis:
Dennis and Ruprecht don’t get on. It’s not hard to see why: two more different boys would be hard to imagine. Ruprecht is eternally fascinated by the world around him, loves to take part in class and throws himself into extra-curricular activities; Dennis, an arch-cynic whose very dreams are sarcastic, hates the world and everything in it, especially Ruprecht, and has never thrown himself into anything, with the exception of a largely successful campaign last summer to efface the first letter from every manifestation of the word ‘canal’ in the Greater Dublin Area, viz. the myriad street signs procaiming ROYAL ANAL, WARNING! ANAL, GRAND ANAL HOTEL. As far as Dennis is concerned the entire persona of Ruprecht Van Doren is nothing more than a grandiloquent concoction of foolish Internet theories and fancy talk lifted from the Discovery Channel.
The central figure on the staff side at Seabrook is Howard, the history teacher, known to the boys as “Howard the Coward” from a traumatic incident when he was a student at the school. The boys have nicknames for all the teachers — surprise, surprise. For example, the French teacher, Father Green, is known as ‘Pere Verte’. Adolescent meanness is one of the things that Murray is very, very good at.
Seabrook has great connections through aumni to the financial world and Howard initially went off to a job at the City in London but incompetence (or malfeasance) there produce a multi-million pound disaster. The school values loyalty, however, and he landed back there as a teacher, a job for which is profoundly unsuited.
Howard for some years has been in a relationship with an American, Halley, but, much like of his job, it is one of easy convenience, not commitment, and that produces its own set of tensions which open up a whole new set of vistas and possiblities for the author.
Seabrook was/is Dublin’s outstanding Catholic school, long run by the Paraclete Fathers, but that may be about to change, in the form of Howard’s foil, the Acting Prinicipal:
On bad days Howard sees their [the Fathers] endurance as a kind of personal rebuke — as if that almost-decade of life between matriculation and his ignominious return here had, because of his own ineptitude, been rolled back, struck from the record, deemed merely so much fudge.
Of course this is pure paranoia. The priests are not immortal. The Holy Paraclete Fathers are experiencing the same problem as every other Catholic order: they are dying out. Few of the priests in Seabrook are under sixty, and the newest recruit to the pastoral programme — one of an ever-dwindling number — is a young seminarian from somewhere outside Kinshasa; when the school principal, Father Desmond Furlong, fell ill at the beginning of September, it was a layman — economics teacher Gregory L. Costigan — who took the reins, for the first time in Seabrook’s history.
Greg (he encourages collegial informality as a threatening tactic) has two goals: he will be the first lay principal and he will introduce modern business practices to the dreary old parochial place.
I am going to leave you to discover for yourself the rest of the supporting student and staff casts (and there are some particularly grim characters to discover) and all of the parents. Trust me, they are an interesting bunch.
You will notice that every character that I have described (and it holds for the ones that I haven’t) has an incredibly selfish motivation which leaves him or her an equally incredibly incomplete person. It is Skippy — both in life and memory — who serves as the glue that holds them together. That phenomenon is one of the substantial and impressive themes in Murray’s novel. The other, which I have not even begun to address in this review, is the author’s exploration of the power of memory of a person and how it affects actions, which is the major driving force of book three (albeit surrounded by a series of sadly hilarious set pieces).
The result of all this is one of the most readable books on this year’s Booker longlist. Perhaps it is too long, although it wasn’t for me. And perhaps if you aren’t as intrigued by school novels as I am you might find it hard to engage — I certainly didn’t. While I don’t think it has the gravitas to actually win the prize, I would be very happy to see it on the shortlist. It is the kind of serious, but very reader-friendly, book that is all too rare in modern publishing.