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Skippy Dies: A Novel
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on September 16, 2010
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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.
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on September 30, 2013
I don't enjoy giving a middling review to a novel so well written (hence the three stars), but the author never succeeds in making me care even a little bit about the characters he creates. True, it is a tragi-comedy, and I suppose one might not expect great character development when the characters are given outsized odd quirks for the sake of the humor but nothing that makes them feel truly human. I think most of us can identify to some degree with the awkwardness of adolescence and the difficulties facing a diffident, introverted personality, and so I wanted to like these boys and their history teacher...but I just couldn't. They were missing some vital spark of humanity that would have granted me access to them as characters.

With this novel being set in a private Catholic boys school in Ireland at least 20 years ago, it came as no surprise that child molestation should be integral to the plot. How it fits in I won't give away, but I found it difficult to accept such a serious subject in an otherwise frivolous setting. Try as he might, the author simply doesn't succeed for me in mixing comedy and tragedy. I felt pulled in too many directions and ultimately left feeling more empty than either amused or moved.
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VINE VOICEon October 27, 2011
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.

M. Feldman
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on October 16, 2011
Career goals are unsatisfactory for everyone in this novel, set in a school in Dublin. Business is soul-killing. Teaching is what you do if you can't succeed in business. The priesthood is the worst thing of all. So what's a kid to do? Dying young is the best way out, and is what 14 year old Skippy does. His friend Ruprecht takes refuge in food. His beloved Lori becomes anorexic and his rival Carl does drugs. Howard Fallon, the other main protagonist, is in deep despair because he is pushing 30 and contemplates a steady job and living in a nice house. That's enough to drive any man to drink.
It's not as depressing as that makes it sound. Apparently single-sex religion-based schools are not oases of decorum and deference to authority and there's a lot of lively action and sharp humor, mainly at the expense of the over-thirties, who are all inept, unperceptive, pompous, hypocritical, pedophilic, stupid or materialistic
It's told in seamless MPOV and all in present tense except for one flashback scene. The long digression about theoretical physics, cosmology and Irish folklore and the First World War pad it out to over 600 pages and had me skipping (sorry) pages but others have praised them as the best part of the book so it's different strokes for different folk.
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on February 17, 2014
This book can be hard to follow at times, with its large cast of characters and frequently shifting points of view. But I persisted and grew to admire the writing and the story.
It's set in a high-class Catholic prep school for boys in Ireland. Skippy dies under mysterious circumstances in a doughnut shop at the very beginning of the book. This event sets up the tragicomic tone that carries on throughout the story. The author explores some of the saddest events imaginable -- early death, drug overdoses, young love thwarted -- all with a macabre sense of humor.
As the book goes back through the time leading up to and following Skippy's death, you get to know some compelling though deeply flawed characters. Skippy at first seems a slight, troubled teen bent on self-destruction, but you come to sympathize with him as you see how his inner demons drive him. Rupert, his roommate, is a comic creation -- the overweight science nerd desperately seeking a breakthrough that will make the world make sense. Then there's Howard the Coward, the history teacher who is not content with the few textbook pages devoted to Ireland's experience in World War I. He risks his job to try to make the grim reality if that war come alive for his boys.
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on April 13, 2012
Plenty of plot summaries already exist for this energetic tragicomedy set among the handful of boarders at a Dublin Catholic school - no need to write another recap of the huge cast of odd characters or the twisty road that takes them through the death of a classmate. Skippy Dies reads much shorter than its nearly 700 pages... Murray has a feel for pacing. More importantly, he has a strong sense of these early-teen boys - neither sympathetic nor damning, he captures their easy cruelty and flitting loyalties and ceaseless search for a sense of self. He reflects their casual drug abuse and hormone-fueled dramatic antics without commenting on them; they are, for the author and his characters, simply realities of adolescence. His judgment, then, is reserved for the adults who are unable or unwilling to shed that self-involvement. Without exception, these adults are deeply flawed - sometimes sympathetically so, but no less irredeemably. Paul Murray is a bit too on the nose when he digresses into World-War-I rantings about the betrayals of institutions and the unfairness of history, but the point remains: parents, teachers, governments and schools are plagued by their own self-involvement. In the end, this is a broadly cautionary tale: place no faith in assumed friendships or imposed leaders - both will betray you.

For this heavy backdrop, however, Murray has a light touch. The teens' interactions are deft and charming, even when they are cruel. Skippy Dies is the finest kind of page-turner, one built of its own momentum and powered by compelling characters instead of artificial cliffhangers. Murray doesn't mock or satirize his characters, but he cloaks their darkness in daylight. He reminds us that of that moment where we each realized that teenage angst is universal, that we were both bullied and bullies, and that the insecurity we felt was the reflection of the insecurity we created in others. His Dublin can be lonely and can be funny, but mostly it is familiar.
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on March 22, 2013
I had my eye on Skippy Dies for quite a bit after it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It did not disappoint to say the least.

Summarizing this book would likely prove futile, as there are so many facets to it that a brief synopsis would not really do it justice. A boy named Skippy serves as the thread that holds many disparate themes together-quantum physics, sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, drugs, education and educators, sex, Irish Folklore, celebrity worship, and anorexia are addressed in this sweeping novel.

Skippy Dies is, essentially, the best written book regarding adolscence and coming-of-age that I have ever read. Forget about Catcher in the Rye, or Harry Potter, this book is full of tidbits that ring true to anyone who is well past such a tumultuous time in their lives.

The character of Howard (a teacher at Seabrook-the school that Skippy attends) particularly stayed with me. Howard is 30 years old, extremely intelligent, involved in a relationship that can only be described as "stuck", and is constantly questioning how he got to his current situation in life. Howard used to work in finance as a futures trader but failed miserably. This is not the only thing he has "failed" at as his nickname to the children is "Howard the Coward".

Howard resonated with me as I am also in my early 30's, wondering, just as Howard does, why there has not been more of a "narrative arc" to my life. Basically, the understanding that we all seem to come to (also known as a mid-life crisis) that yes, this IS all there is. Despite what your parents, teachers, TV, advertisements have told you, you, almost certainly, are just average in abilities. It is a sobering realization to come to, and I have never seen it more aptly described by any author. Murray doesn't mince words or sugar coat these issues, they are just the stark, raving truth of life and growing up.

One criticism I initially had is that Murray is wonderful at portraying universal issues that we all have as humans, and of course phenomenal at addressing issues boys have, however, I did think his female characters were a bit thin at first. There were not many of them, so it seemed clear that he stuck to what he was best at, but the ones that did enter the story seemed to be caricatures. Lori at first seems particularly vapid (now, it is hard for me to say bc I do not think I was the typical teenage girl), so vapid that it is hard to imagine anyone like her existing. And then I remembered the times I had listened to teenage girls conversations and I thought-maybe this IS how most of them are. We do, however, get glimpses of Lori's depth and inner struggles at times (in fact she seems to become more aware as the story unfolds), which makes me think perhaps that Murray does indeed know how to draw female characters, but made a conscious decision to keep them on the periphery.

All in all, an absolutely amazing book. A book that easily has entered the top 10 and will probably stay there indefinitely.
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on May 6, 2012
The book of the century for me is Skippy Dies by the Irish Author, Paul Murray. (I am aware that the century is still young, but I am not, and so I have to get my vote in early.)

The story takes place in the present at a small private school, Seabrook Academy, on the outskirts of Dublin. The school is run by the Paraclete Fathers, a dying community of missionary and teaching priests. As there are only a handful of aging and ailing priests left, the school is gradually being taken over by an ambitious lay administrator. The story revolves around a dozen students and an equal number of faculty and old boys. There are also two girls who get into the act, students at St. Bridgits, the sister academy which is tantalizingly close (just across a courtyard from the boys' dorm) but light years away.

Murray's humor is everywhere. It's a kind of Bob and Ray humor that builds up comic tension in you but seldom lets you laugh out loud to relieve it. What's humorous here is half situational and half in the quirky characters you come to care about. Yet neither the situations nor the characters seem exaggerated. In spite of the humor, this book is dead serious. It's not alternately serious and funny; it's serious throughout, and its humor stems from the awfulness that creeps over you as the author reels you in. The book is upsetting and infuriating: you want to leap into the school and get involved yourself.

The most striking feature of Murray's writing is the continual invention. The book is forever steering you off in a direction that you never saw coming, but only a few pages later you know it was simply inevitable. I'm not sure quite how the author pulls this off, but it happens again and again. For example, the book comes to a perfectly satisfying conclusion about halfway through, but there are still all those pages to go. And a hundred pages later you understand that the seemingly satisfying conclusion of the midpoint simply wouldn't have been up to the standard of this gifted writer.

Toward the very end, Murray introduces the story of D Company of Dublin's Royal Fusiliers who fought in the First World War. Ireland was not directly involved in the war, but the Brits recruited there and raised a number of companies of volunteers. D Company was made up largely of Rugby players from the club system; they were joining in groups -- sometimes entire teams -- eager for adventure. The company was called the Dublin Pals. Though they expected to serve on the Western Front, they were shipped off to Gallipoli with less than two weeks of training, and there they were massacred along with the Australians and New Zealanders in one of Churchill's worst ever miscalculations. The few who came home arrived in the middle of the Risings, and instead of treating them as heroes the Irish thought them traitors. After all, they'd fought in the service of Britain. It's an upsetting story by itself; woven as it is into Skippy Dies it becomes something else entirely.

I was intrigued enough about Paul Murray to track down and read his first book, An Evening of Long Goodbyes. That one was less obviously brilliant. It was amusing but only modestly engaging. . . until the very end. When I closed the book I concluded that I wasn't merely engaged but captivated. Again, I'm not sure how Murray had managed to get to me, but he did.
I chanced upon an interview with Paul Murray published shortly after An Evening of Long Goodbyes was nominated for the Whitbread Prize, and it gave something of hint about his magic. He said that Joyce and Beckett were his first author/heroes, but that Irish writers who came after them were averse to taking risks. And he continued:

"By 'risks' here, I think I mean humor. What I love about Beckett is that one minute he can be dealing with grand existential themes and the next minute someone's pants fall down . . . . I don't think a book ought to be limited to one genre, as comedy or tragedy or whatever. Without wanting to get too grand about it, that's not the way life works, is it? It doesn't divide itself up neatly into humorous part, tragic part - it's more blurred than that. When things seem outwardly perfect, we can find ourselves despairing, and conversely, when things seem at their absolute most hopeless and desolate, we can find ourselves laughing at the silliest joke."

The story of Skippy Dies is hopeless and desolate and you'll find yourself chuckling all the way through it.
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on September 15, 2012
Longlisted 2010 Man Booker Prize
A wonderful multilayered read.

Hard to use the word "enjoyed" ... it was so melancholic with dashes of sweet humour... but it was an such an enjoyable read. It was a well written and absorbing narrative, jumping between characters and voice.

Yes, Skippy dies right at the beginning .... he is a teenage schoolboy at an exclusive Irish boarding school. The story gives background to Skippy and his friends with teenage angst and coming of age, but also gives background though the stories of the school staff.

There is a mix of bullying (by the boys and their teachers) and pedophilia and the sad tangles of life that impacted on Skippy.

Husband also really enjoyed this ... for a different set of reasons ... as I said, it is multi-layered and has many themes running through it.
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on August 31, 2011
The book is about adolescence, not the kind that has been tinted by hindsight with rose coloured glasses, but the awkward ugly confused kind. The group of boarding school boys that this story is principally about are literally at that point between boyhood and realising the 'truth' about life, and the confusing idea that adults are not perfect and do not always have the right answer or behave in the best manner, despite what they may tell you. It is about that adolescent feeling of being lost and not knowing how you fit in; about the gruff in-different exterior teenagers too often have, against the sensitive mixed up feelings they contain inside and their hope of real acceptance. It is about not being noticed, and the superficial attention adults too often give.

This book reminded me of a mixture of the UK shows 'Teachers' and 'Skins'. It is a long book, but I found that it held my interest and I finished it in a few days. I also found it quite a realistic betrayal of modern teenagers - too often we forget what it really is like.
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