Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

Purchased at Indigo Books

The reader is introduced to the title character of Paul Murray’s novel in Ed’s Doughnut House where he is the decided underdog in a doughnut-eating race with a fellow student, Ruprecht, who is seeking his sixteenth victory in a row. In the opening sentence of the prologue, “Skippy turns purple and falls off his chair”. Ruprecht is not overly concerned:

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.

(If you want to know more plot details, I’d refer you to excellent reviews at The Asylum and Just William’s Luck. I am going to concentrate on some other aspects here.)

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.

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16 Responses to “Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray”

  1. Trevor Says:

    You have my attention, Kevin. I didn’t want to read this one, and I don’t recall another review that enticed me to. However . . . I, too, like school novels, and you’ve done a great job showing me the characters and I think I’d like to read about them. I’m not sure if I’ll go for it yet (more because right now I’m not lacking in things to read) — perhaps only if it makes the shortlist.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds fun, but 650 pages is a lot of pages for fun. The review doesn’t alter my impression that overall this year’s list is a bit middlebrow. Am I being unfair do you think?

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor, Max: I would suggest waiting to see if it makes the shortlist rather than rushing out and buying it, particularly if your reading agenda is full. (I suspect it won’t — I think the jury will opt for more traditional or sentimental titles, along with the strong historical and literary choices.) It did take me less time to read than a couple of the 350 page books on this year’s list — partly because of the writing (which flows very quickly) but mainly because I was engaged in the story. I had figured on spending a week with it but ended up finishing it in three days — the advantage of the paperback set is that a 220-page book is just about a perfect one-day read for me. And while I did not read it this way, it did strike me as a novel that could be read in 30 or 40 page chunks and then put aside for a while. Because he does so many set pieces (and the characters get firmly established early), it does have an episodic quality to it.

    As far as this year’s Booker, I would say three are historical (Mitchell, Carey, Levy — perhaps Dunmore, but I’d put her elsewhere) and three are literary in the conventional sense (Galgut, McCarthy, Jacobson — this one would possibly be my fourth there). I’ve been looking for a term to describe the other seven and haven’t found it — the best I have come up with is to imagine a juror saying “let’s have some on the list that people actually buy”. And even with that, I’d separate it into “traditional” forms (Tremain, Dunmore, Moore and Donoghue) and “modern” (Murray, Warner, Tsiolkas).

    For me, Murray and Tremain are closer to what I would call a literary novel, but that is probably just a reflection that they landed with me. On the whole, I haven’t found it a “bad” longlist, in the sense that only the Jacobson was impossible (and some readers whom I respect quite liked that). I thought three books were outstanding or very good — Galgut, McCarthy, Levy — and the rest hovered around ordinary (some on the positive side, some negative). I’ll given the jury credit for getting me to read a number of books that I would not have otherwise tried and I did find something of value in most of them. The big caveat, however, is that I have much more time to read than most people do and do have an interest in “prize” fiction. For those with more crowded schedules, you need to be selective to match your interests to the choices.

  4. Mary Gilbert Says:

    There was lots to enjoy in this very long novel and for a teacher like me the scenes in the staffroom and classroom where the hapless Howard tries to motivate his unwilling pupils were particularly amusing. The themes associated with the first WW and astrophysics were well woven into the narrative and the set pieces were hilarious ( though would a Catholic school really have a yearly Halloween bop?)
    The adolescent banter was cruel and funny but perhaps just a little too witty and knowing. I found the book overall far too long and book two in particular continued with more of the same without any discernable plot developments. However Ghostland did pick up tempo and by the end of the novel I’d begun to feel a lot of affection for Skippy and Ruprecht and concern for their welfare.
    Am I alone in thinking that this is a novel that would appeal to men more than women? I’m sure the constant reference to sex and bodily functions and the crudity of the attitudes towards women are depressingly accurate but 600 pages in the company of a group of adolescent boys began to pall fairly rapidly. Perhaps for male readers there’s a shamefaced pleasure in re-visiting those teenage fantasies? Certainly some of the newspaper reviews I’ve read from male reviewers have been fairly ecstatic which suggests that the novel gives a kind of legitimate literary context for re-visiting their hormonally charged past.
    An entertaining read but not a novel I would ever want to read again or recontemplate and I think I’d feel a bit depressed if it won the Booker.

    • claire Says:

      Mary
      Of course an Irish Catholic School would have a Hallow’een bop! We don’t associate hallow’een with any sort of religion or anti-religion sentiment, it’s just another reason to party!

    • Sandy Says:

      Mary I totally agree about what almost felt like misogyny in this novel. I hate references to women as bitches and classifications like ‘hot’ and discussions of ‘who would you most like to f***’, especially when they come from clueless 14 year old boys!

      Much more a bloke’s novel than a woman’s, although I did enjoy it and I am female. But too long, too many characters, too much waffle and too many adolescent male fantasies. Actually make that just too many male fantasies, as there were a fair few from the adults too, priests and otherwise. Some of the best parts were the WW1 stories from Howard although how exactly did they fit into the rest of the story except in some obscure male bonding kind of way?

      I never enjoy reading the Booker winner, but do like some of the long and short listed novels – so not surprised Skippy didn’t win. Won’t be rushing out to read Finkler.

  5. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) Says:

    It is great to see that you enjoyed it too. I think the fact that we enjoyed reading a 650 page school novel (and at no point did it feel too long!) shows the quality of this book. I really hope that it makes the short list and I’d love to see it win.

  6. leroyhunter Says:

    I’m still interested in this, but admit to being put off by it being too long. I’d go along with the “fun read” aspect here (where I wouldn’t otherwise) for personal reasons: I went to a competitor school of Murray’s model (Blackrock College) in Dublin so there’s a curiosity to see the acerbic portrayal of a familiar milieu, which is balanced by a slight fear of a nostalgia-fest.

    Undecided.

    Incidentally, a good friend of mine was a contemporary of Murray’s at Blackrock, albeit several years ahead of him. In the way of these things he is now studiously unimpressed with the attention and success of his co-alumnus (he’s a literature professor and quite picky so that plays a role too I guess).

  7. Cheryl Collins Says:

    I really enjoyed this book and felt ashamed that I had waited till it got longlisted to read it. Staff from my favourite bookshop-Toppings of Ely, had been urging me to read it for months and since I didn’t fancy spending time with a group of adolescent boys I resisted. When I did read it I was swept along by the story and moved by the many underlying themes which prevented it from being a funny but perhaps slightly cruel tale. I’d think to think that a second, more measured reading would allow these themes to expand in a worthwhile way, the power of the story stopped me lingering this time. I certainly found the themes and ideas that Murray used far less laboured than in some of the other Booker longlist offerings I’ve read this year and which makes it, to my mind, a more worthy candidate for the shortlist.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: I think Jackie and Cheryl’s comments address part of your point about male readers — like your own memories of the classroom, there are non-gender-based themes that are very well done. I do think, though, that male readers will find even more to identify with since the “gang” does have a lot of growing-up characteristics that are male-based (and that probably did affect the rave reviews). I think the length issue was very much influenced for me by knowing that others had found volume two slow and distracting — which meant that I wasn’t surprised that it was exactly that (and it doesn’t go on forever). The other two volumes go so quickly that, like Jackie, I didn’t find it a particularly long book — actually I spent less time reading all of Skippy Dies than I did 200 pages of The Finkler Question (when I found myself doing things like washing dishes instead of picking up the book because that was more interesting).

    Jackie/Cheryl: I find it interesting that the book is about quite a bit more than any description (e.g. boys’ school novel) can indicate. On the enjoyment front, it is difficult to describe how Murray creates humorous scenes that go well beyond traditional adolescent school humor. And I agree that as it moves on (particularly in volume three) a number of quite serious underlying themes start to emerge. I’m not sure I want to reread it soon, but I may turn to it again sometime.

    Leroy: I think you would find quite a bit more than nostalgia here, although it might also be the case that having gone to a similar school in real life might make Murray’s version feel phoney. Never having been near a UK public school, I can’t say. Also, I think you would know by page 50 if it was going to be “too long” — although do note that there will be a shift of tone in volume two. It is one of the few books on this year’s Booker list where the final third actually gets better rather than worse. And I love the data about your friend and Murray at Blackrock — nothing quite like grumpy literary types, is there? Quite charming, actually.

  9. William Rycroft Says:

    I’m making this comment after the shortlist has been announced and I’m sad, and a little surprised that Skippy Dies didn’t make it. Your review has reminded me of how fantastically drawn the characters are and what an enjoyable, if long, read it was. I’m not sure I’m quite as positive about it as Eileen Battersby though, in this rather hilarious piece for the Irish Times:

    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/0908/1224278449522.html

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for that link, Will. The upside to missing the Booker shortlist, I hereby predict, is that some library somewhere will get it onto the IMPAC list when it is eligible and Murray may well win that more lucrative prize. I am hoping that leroyhunter (who went to Blackrock) will give it a go and offer his opinions. I do admit that I have thought about Skippy or one of his gang at least once a day since I read the book.

  11. omnivorish Says:

    I’m still reading and will look forward to reading all the posts once I’ve finished – though there’s no plot spoiler in saying that Skippy dies!
    I’m from Dublin and I love Murray’s depiction of it – it reminds me of, on a totally different note, the Ross O’Carrol-Kelly series – a must, if you want more Dublin comedy …

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    omnivorish: I agree that Murray does as good a job of creating a sense of place as he does in establishing his characters. I look forward to his next book.

  13. Lija Says:

    I thought this book was genius, and I’m happy to see that you picked out the same minor character as I did (Dennis). I thought his stubborn cynicism made him almost adult-like, and wondered if he was some kind of Paul Murray cameo. Of course I could be completely off the mark, but it’s interesting that he stuck out amongst a whole cast of other characters.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lija: I suspect it is because we all went to school with someone like him that Dennis struck such a powerful note with me. Check out my review of Lemon for a novel that features female central character of similar type. It isn’t quite as ambitious as Skippy Dies but it does have much to recommend it.

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