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A novel about death that's full of life
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.