Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Skippy Dies has been described by more than one professional reviewer as ‘hilarious and horrifying.’ I would say that it is hilarious for a very long time, and then suddenly horrifying. This is true although Skippy dies in a donut-eating contest in the book’s prologue. Because, after all, his roommate, the severely overweight donut-eating champ Ruprecht, also happens to be a genius who is working out time travel based on his understanding of string theory and multiverses.
Skippy and Ruprecht are part of a small group of ordinary friends at the elite Seabrook College, an all-boys Catholic boarding school in Dublin, Ireland. The opening of the novel moves back in time before Skippy’s death to show the boys in action. They hang out with Dennis and Mario. Mario is from Italy and fancies himself a real hot lover. Dennis is more a skeptic, questioning Ruprecht’s genius. Skippy–whose real name is Daniel–is a sweet fourteen-year-old guy (a ‘second year’ at Seabrook) who keeps secret his family troubles and who crushes on Lori, a girl who attends St. Brigid’s all-girls school, after seeing her through Ruprecht’s telescope.
The boys carry on the kind of banter that the reader expects of fourteen-year-old boys. Mario is always giving (very bad) love and sex advice to his friends. They ignore him, understanding that Mario’s lucky condom can’t be that lucky if it’s been in his wallet for three years. Many of their interactions are funny enough to make the reader weep. Yet, Skippy’s love for Lori is a dangerous one. She has a quid pro quo relationship with the sociopathic Carl–he provides her drugs, she returns sexual favors. Skippy knows nothing about this and see Lori as an ideal. Her family and her home, at least superficially, are evidence of sweet perfection of her life.
Skippy is adrift–he’s tired of the swim team although the coach tells him that he’s a natural. His grades drop. The equally adrift history teacher, Howard ‘the Coward’ Fallon (who is also smitten with the wrong woman, a substitute geography teacher named Miss McIntyre) is bullied by the school’s acting principal, Greg Costigan, into keeping an eye on Skippy. Greg is a narcissistic jerk who hopes to become the permanent principal by ‘branding’ Seabrook and cashing in on its long history. Howard is torn between teaching the boys true and interesting things about World War I (using Robert Graves’ poetry, discussing Irish involvement and the way that people in control wasted the lives of the young and patriotic) and just teaching the textbook in preparations for exams–that is, doing what he’s told to keep his job.
Only when Skippy dies, do the true evils luring in Seabrook comes out. And there are many. As Skippy’s friends work hard to communicate with him in this multiverse, the world of the adults works against their deep desires.
High school housekeeping: Skippy Dies is an adult book. A lot of people would think this is because of the subject matter–the sometimes sickening bullying at the boarding school, the boys’ open lusts and sometimes profane language, the fact that a few of them are incipient drug dealers. But, to be honest, I’m always reading YA fiction, and these things abound in most that’s been written in the last few years. What sets Skippy Dies apart are the length–about 675 pages–and the terrible nature of many of the adults, who are more concerned with their own (undeservedly good) reputations and the reputation of the school. Greg Costigan is a horrifying leader, and yet he will be recognizable to every adult who has ever worked outside the home.
There aren’t many high school students who feel they have the time to read a long novel like this one. But I do know some. And the rewards are plentiful. Readers will learn a bit about life in Ireland, Irish folklore, what a boarding school can be like, the work of Robert Graves and James Joyce, and the scientific string theory/multiverse theory. All of this is woven so perfectly into the story that it is fun to engage in. Young adult readers will also get a taste of how, as Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed, an ‘institution is the lengthened shadow of one man’–and why that is so disastrous for freedom, creativity, and especially for truth.
Skippy Dies is a brilliant novel that works on many levels. I’ve picked it for my family book club. (My kids are all young adults.) Everyone who is a good reader should try it. If you’re a teen and wonder if you’re up to it, think about books like Libba Bray’s Going Bovine. Do you like that sort of thing, something that is so dark and so wildly funny at the same time? If so–and if you are ready to take it up a few notches from there–you should give Skippy Dies a try.