Set in the fictional Seabrook boys’ boarding school in South County Dublin, Skippy Dies embraces a veritable host of characters in its 661 pages, including the Acting Principal Greg Costigan, history teacher Howard, school psychopath Carl, St Brigid’s girl Lori, temporary Geography teacher Aurelie and teenage drug dealer Barry. Its main characters, however, are Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster and his best friend Ruprecht, who is a teenage genius bent on validating the M-Theory of multiple universes. Skippy, on the other hand, just wants Lori fall in love with him …
The title is something of a spoiler (!) here, given that Skippy dies in the prologue, during a doughnut eating contest with Ruprecht, with his last acting being to scrawl the name ‘Lori’ in jam on the floor. The novel then flashes back to explore how Skippy’s death came to pass.
At 661 pages, Skippy Dies is a pretty long novel that trawls long and wide for its inspirations – anything from quantum physics to the war poetry of Robert Graves, teenage drug dealing, anorexia, adolescent infatuation, adult infidelity, the impact of religious orders on the spiritual and physical well-being of school pupils ... For the first 50 pages or so I thought it a little too clever-clever for its own good, and dreaded having to wade through another 600 pages. By the time I was finished, I would gladly have read another 600.
Skippy, even though he is largely a passive character, is hugely endearing, a bright-eyed, intelligent chap who is massively vulnerable and finds himself abandoned by his family at a critical stage of his life. The overweight Ruprecht, more of a comic sidekick in the beginning, comes into his own as a compelling character – his obsessions with parallel universes and time travel, etc., are never jarring in one so young.
There are some wonderfully malevolent characters too, particularly that of Greg Costigan, a man who will preserve the tradition and ethos of Seabrook College regardless of the cost, and who encapsulates the phrase ‘the banality of evil’.
Murray is an elegant writer (Lori’s smile, for example, is described as “bright and strong, a kinder, warmer cousin of light”), a superb storyteller and plotter, and a very funny comic writer who had me laughing out loud on numerous occasions. Mario, the permanently horny teen friend of Skippy’s, is an hilarious comic creation.
The novel comes in two formats, one the 661-page novel, the other in which the novel is chopped up into three distinct books. This, presumably, reflects the short attention span of readers today, but my advice is to go for the 661-page book, because it’s a very difficult novel to put down.
All told, Skippy Dies is a hugely satisfying novel that blends comedy and tragedy in a story that is, despite the timeless themes, always relevant to the Ireland of today.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Nobody Move, This Is A Review: SKIPPY DIES by Paul Murray
I reviewed Paul Murray’s SKIPPY DIES for RTE’s Arena programme alongside Edel Coffey a couple of weeks back, working off the (koff) ‘notes’ below. I haven’t listened back to the show, but hopefully it was all a bit more comprehensible than the notes suggest - although if it was, the credit is all Edel’s. To wit: