'Skippy Dies'

Book review
By Tom DeMarco | Feb 09, 2012

"Skippy Dies"

By Paul Murray

Faber & Faber, 2011


'Skippy Dies,' the new novel by Irish author Paul Murray is – for this reader at least – the book of the century. 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 is 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. And all the while it’s funny.

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 story comes to a perfectly satisfying conclusion about halfway through, but there are still all those pages to go. And a 100 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 World War I. 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 the British, whom every Irish school kid is being taught to hate. 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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