on April 27, 2010
This book (longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for Irish Novel of the Year and Costa Novel of the Year, and to be adapted for the big screen by Neil Jordan) grabbed hold of me on the very dramatic opening pages and tossed me out the other end (page 672!) only 3 days later. What a page turner. Hailing as I do from the same side of the Liffey where this story is based, it was like being transported back in time to my schooldays, though how times have changed with the onslaught of modern technologies.
Skippy Dies is based primarily in Seabrook College, home to day and boarding pupils alike. It fixes in on both the young teenage students and their teachers alike, and their lives away from school. What really struck me was how today's teenagers have no concept of what having a private life means. Camera phones and social networking sites are the norm and any indiscretions can be made widely known in seconds.
The book deals beautifully with the story behind each of the main characters, exploring their past, their family life, what brought them to the here and now and their current emotional state. When you add the girls school next door into the mix the story really takes off.
The title is self explanatory, but all is not what it seems, so my advice is to let Murray take you on this wonderfully touching journey of discovery.
I don't want to give away too much other than to say all the characters are wonderfully portrayed in such fantastic detail. Murray's style of writing is both hilarious and poignant.
This is not one to miss. I read the full, one book edition. It also comes in a really nice 3-volume box set if you fancy breaking it up.
on September 16, 2010
A 672-page novel is an investment, but Skippy Dies by Paul Murray gets so much right that I hardly know where to begin. The novel opens with the death of the eponymous Daniel "Skippy" Juster as the 14-year-old collapses in a donut shop. From there, we are taken back in time to the myriad events that lead up to that moment, and we spend the next 450 pages falling in love with Skippy and hoping for a different outcome. The final 200 pages are the aftermath, and are arguably the most compelling of this affecting tale.
Now, a book about the death of a young boy sounds like a bummer--and Skippy's death is far from the only tragedy depicted--but as in life, the tragedy is balanced with high comedy. The novel is set at Seabrook College, an upscale private preparatory school in Ireland. This, the institution's 140th year, is a time of transition. The Catholic priests who have been in control for more than a century are beginning to take a back-seat to secular influences. (Yes, contemporary scandals in the Catholic Church are touched upon within the plot, but they are not the focus of the story.)
While Skippy is a pivotal character, the novel is an ensemble piece. We meet Skippy's school pals, the older boys who bully them, the teachers and priests that teach them, the girls from the neighboring school, and a smattering of parents and significant others. There's a plot. Many of them, in fact; it's an expansive novel and much happens along the way. But this story is character-driven, and that's where Murray excels. His characters are delicious! Ruprecht, the idiosyncratic genius; Mario, the teenage lothario; Howard "The Coward" Fallon, a teacher searching for identity; and an acting principal you'll love to hate. Murray perfectly captures the sweet innocence of young boys, right along with their monstrous side. Every word, every action rings true. In Murray's novel, protagonists disappoint. Good things do not always happen to good people. But through it all, there is just so much to laugh about.
I could not be less interested in Irish school boys, but Paul Murray has written a universal tale that simply shines. The writing is effervescent, and it only strengthens as the novel unfolds. It's hard to imagine a novel about death that's more vibrant and full of life. Don't let the length deter you from one of the year's finest reads.
on September 8, 2010
This book is exhausting, both emotionally and for your eyeballs. Although the story largely takes place within the narrow confines of a boys' Catholic school in Dublin, the breadth of the issues discussed is as wide as (and includes) the universe. The writing is insightful and the subject matter is interesting. However, the book was so densely packed with musings ranging from the origins of the universe to the nature of pop music that it just frayed around the edges a bit. A few of the threads in the book could have probably been trimmed to make it a tighter, more interesting read.
The centerpiece of the story is Skippy, a teenaged boy attending the Catholic school, and I won't be spoiling anything when I mention that Skippy Dies. The bulk of the book describes the events leading up to his death, with a large cast of characters who seem to corner each possible Catholic schoolboy (nerd, ladies' man, rich kid) and faculty (boring old priest, returning alumnus, hot chick, possible molester) stereotype. This is not to say that these characters are not interesting, and, in some cases, provide some much-needed humor in the midst of what is unquestionably a grim tale. The biggest problem with the story is that at times, the plot gets crushed by its own weight. There is a lot going on, and it does not necessarily all tie together in the end.
I finished this book a few days ago and wanted to let it marinate a bit before writing a review, because I could not decide if this was a modern classic and my initial impression of it being a bit over-done was just from reader fatigue. Ultimately, to me the book was between 3 and 4 stars, and fell to 3 stars for the long and rambling sections that I was hopeful would be tied together better. In the end, they were repetitive and just did not maintain my interest. Without question, Murray is an excellent writer and a deep thinker with a lot to say. In this book, there was just a bit too much of all of it.
I had some trouble deciding on the number of stars for this review. Murray is a gifted writer, a wordsmith who can bring characters to life in a few pages, make you care about them as if they were real people, describing their physical characteristics, their character faults, and their secret fears in a way that few writers can. He gets the modern teen-aged boy down with great accuracy, their false bravado, their vicious competition, and their reluctance to let adults know anything about them. He is particularly good at their dialogue, if you can call it dialogue. His wicked satire had me hooting with laughter throughout the novel. It is a dark sort of humor that was particularly well suited to the Irish in me.
Still, this is a strange story, starting off with the climax in the first chapter, then playing out the build-up and the long denouement in separate sections. Certainly the plot goes into some strange places, at times making me wonder if he had gone completely off the tracks, on a Joycean meander through Dublin. He eventually pulls together a conventional plot, albeit with some rambles on the dark side. Murray includes literary references, a drug dealer who quotes Yeats, the history teacher's fixation with Robert Graves, but these are occasional, and completely beyond the comprehension or interest of the boys. He tries to draw a parallel between Skippy's infatuation with the frisbee girl and the quest for the white (or black) goddess, but he doesn't quite pull this off.
This is a terribly cynical picture of life at the opening of a new century. I don't deny the cruelty of boys, the omnipresence of profanity and pornography in their lives, and the willingness of some teachers to exploit them, but there is almost no decent person in this whole book, at least one whom the author considers decent. I don't know if the author believes that decency is a concept anyone could aspire to. He certainly includes a number of characters who project the outward signs of goodness, but he exposes their rotten core. There is some small hope for humanity in the final pages, when a few characters begin to see a future, or find courage (even Howard the coward, but the reader hears about this rather than experiencing his momentous moment). The good deeds happen almost as an aside, while the grim business of moving the school forward marches down the center stage. I cannot enthuse about this novel to female readers, since it is very much a male dominated story, nor could I recommend it to my teenagers, for I thought it was too cynical. Nevertheless, Murray has undeniable talent, and a story is not necessarily better for being less cynical. Four stars.
on November 17, 2010
I can't remember when I have been so completely poleaxed by a novel.
I thought it would be funny. I hoped it would be affecting. But I never suspected it would also be wise and, in its own unpretentious way, profound.
Maybe I'm still just dizzy from its weird and wonderful spell, but this strikes me as not just a great read, but great literature. This tale of an Irish boarding school is funny, devastating and rings absolutely true. Murray has an uncanny ability to recreate not just the language and dialogue of teenagers, but the way they think. Some of the characters seem like stereotypes at first -- the fat genius Ruprecht, the sarcastic cynic Dennis, the beleaguered teacher Howard, and the sensitive, disturbed dreamer Skippy -- but they soon come alive in all of their lovable, infuriating, goofy glory. They turn out to be far deeper and more complicated than we could have guessed.
The entire world of Seabrook, the fictional Dublin boarding school, comes vividly alive. Meanwhile, I was feeling the roiling emotions that come with being 14, emotions that I thought were 40 years in my past.
One of the finest passages comes at the end, when the confused girl Lori suddenly has an insight that comes too late to save Skippy, but just in time to save Ruprecht. It is this: We are so obsessed with wanting to be somewhere else -- or someone else -- that we fail to see the magic and beauty that we already have. It is a testament to Murray's art that this simple truth seems so absolutely crucial.
When I was finished, I immediately went back and re-read the last 20 pages, partly because I wanted to make sure I caught every nuance, and partly because I did not want the experience to end.
on October 3, 2010
When I picked up a copy of Paul Murray's new novel, I did so with the anticipation of finding a fun, satirical story of adolescence. What I discovered was a towering piece of literature that truly packs an emotional punch.
The story revolves around Daniel 'Skippy' Juster - a quiet, misunderstood 14 year old boy - who dies during a doughnut eating contest. The reader is then given the story preceding the tragedy, as well as the aftermath it brings about. In a world of decreasing morals, particularly among adolescents, teachers are quick to notice there is something different, something special about this boy. And a chance encounter with a student from St Brigid's, the girls' school next door, has left Skippy in love.
Also central to the plot is Howard 'The Coward' Fallon. The 28 year old History teacher has found himself - a decade older - right back where he started, suffering through days at Seabrook College. And as the nickname would suggest, there is a history that continues to haunt him. Howard is desperate for a purpose, "to keep days from just piling up on top of each other," but his life and his marriage are quickly unraveling. To complicate things, he is falling for the beautiful Miss MacIntyre, a substitute teacher.
Murray does a remarkable job of transporting the reader to his world with some of the most vivid imagery I have found in modern literature. "Above, a blood-red sun flares through the clouds, like a last live coal uncovered among the cinderwork of the dying seasons." How can one not be captivated?
'Skippy Dies' is a poignant look at the motivations that drive our actions, what it means to be happy, the complications of emotions, and the power we all have in our own small way to truly make a difference. It is the most powerful and emotional book I have read since Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."
What Mr. Murray has created is a gift that I will cherish for a long time to come. He is a writer to watch, and I can't wait to see what he gives us next.
With "Skippy Dies," Paul Murray drags---no, hurls-- the fusty genre of the boys' boarding school novel into the 21st century. As always, there are troubled or befuddled adolescents; clueless or hapless teachers; blinkered administrators intent on preserving moribund traditions to decorate the flyers of the next capital campaign. And as always there are predatory upperclassmen and mysterious girls going to and fro in the sister school next door.
Now give these teenagers cell phones, video games, computers, and a voracious appetite for pills of all sorts. Make the boarding school a Catholic one, with secretive priests, and set it in pre-slump go-go Dublin. And, not least of all, in the first chapter kill off the protagonist in a doughnut shop, thus setting up an excellent mystery.
"Skippy Dies" made the 2010 Booker Prize long list, and it's a pity it didn't win. Murray has an unerring eye for the sufferings of 14-year-old boys and the fecklessness of middle-aged teachers. "Skippy" is a long novel that moves back and forth between various characters. It isn't perfect; there's a bit too much time spent on the scientific speculations of Skippy's roommate, Rupert, as well as on the video games that Skippy himself plays. However, the novel moves briskly along, for the most part, complete with a Gotterdammerung ending that actually seems apt.
I'm recommending this to all of my teacher friends. School principals can read it if they dare. And if you're a parent of a teenager (or ever have been), you'll find "Skippy Dies" riveting.
on August 17, 2012
L/C Ratio: 60/40
(This means I estimate the author devoted 60% of his effort to creating a literary work of art and 40% of his effort to creating a commercial bestseller.)
30% - Growing up
20% - Relationships
15% - Corrupt educators
15% - Humor
10% - World history
10% - The physics of the universe
Skippy Dies was published back in 2010, and since then, I've added and removed it from my reading list at least a dozen times. I blame my flip-flopping on Amazon's description of the book. Okay, it's a novel. But wait, the main characters are all teenagers. So is it a young adult book? And wait, it takes place in Ireland. So do I need to know Irish to enjoy it? Or is it just some morbid sequel to that Frankie Muniz movie about a dog?
In truth, I can't blame whoever wrote the description of Skippy Dies. It's simply not the kind of novel that can be summarized in a few sentences. As you can tell from the thematic breakdown above, there's a ton going on here. Murray handles his shifting perspectives and tones with an art of grace, moving from a heart-wrenching moment involving a destructive affair right to a hilarious scene of banter between teenage boys (my favorite was the conversation about how Robert Frost's poetry is actually all about anal sex).
I always complain about books being unnecessarily long, so I knew Skippy Dies deserved a high grade from me when I got to the end of the 12,000+ Kindle locations and still wanted more. Murray pulls you along on a wild emotional ride. I suggest you fasten your metaphorical seatbelt and hop on board.
Maybe instead of strings it's stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, that's why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other people's we know, until you've got something that to God or whoever might look like a letter or even a whole word.
on March 24, 2010
Salinger, DBC Pierre, now Paul Murray has entered the genre that takes a darkly hilarious look inside the troubled minds of teens. Updated with issues of teen pregnancy, schoolboy drug dealers and the inevitable 'kiddy fiddling' priests, Murray has created a rag tag and bobtail cast that you can't help but love. And without giving too much away - the main character does die, but not before you've learnt to love him...
Let me say right at the beginning that this book is for adults and mature teens. Although certain pacings and literary techniques might remind one of J. K. Rowling, "Skippy Dies" is NOT for young teens or pre-teens, and certainly not for the "Harry Potter set." That said, Paul Murray's book brilliantly captures the intensity and traumatic awakenings that many teens experience while their distracted parents are under the illusion that their kids are still just kids.
Paul Murray is quite a talented writer. I am impressed by how something as simple as his description of the smell of the gym pool or the feel of a locker room shower can bring back in such sharp sensory detail my own teenage experiences, before adulthood numbed out the vividness of "life with a future." It is as though Murray plays a strain of music from a long, long time ago, and it time-warps the reader back to the thick (and frightening) immediacy of adolescence.
I was especially struck by how Murray interweaves fantasy, reality, drugs and video games, dreams, the longings of youth and age, truth and lies warping into truth, and the sheer plodding tedium of life into a mirror we can hold up to ourselves as a society as we ask: Why do teens behave as they do? Why do some of them destroy themselves? Why do they grow up to be so much like us, and why do so many of us shudder at the thought of going back to that time in our lives?
Parents are often cautioned not to allow their young children to watch intense action-type movies because they cannot yet differentiate between fantasy and reality and so are not psychologically ready to be exposed to such material. I couldn't help thinking, in reading this book, that a lot of the Seabrook teens weren't psychologically ready to be exposed to what they were exposed to either. The same may be true for less mature teen readers.
This book is, indeed, very funny and thought-provoking—and at times profound—but it is also so very tragic. My heart has been aching ever since I finished the book several days ago. Even if not in the particulars, on so many levels, through so many different dimensions, this fictional tale is a disturbingly true slice of the life many children today are struggling to survive.