Paul Murray's "Skippy Dies," reviewed by Jess Walter

(Courtesy Of Faber & Faber - Courtesy Of Faber & Faber)
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By Jess Walter
Tuesday, August 31, 2010


By Paul Murray

Faber & Faber. 661 pp. $28

Let's get right to it: On page 5 of Paul Murray's dazzling new novel, "Skippy Dies," . . . Skippy dies.

If killing your protagonist with more than 600 pages to go sounds audacious, it's nothing compared with the literary feats Murray pulls off in this hilarious, moving and wise book. Recently named to the Man Booker Prize long list, "Skippy Dies" is an epic crafted around, of all things, a pack of 14-year-old boys. It's the "Moby-Dick" of Irish prep schools.

The school in question is Dublin's venerable Seabrook College (the equivalent of a private American high school), a 140-year-old institution whose social dynamics make "Lord of the Flies" seem like "Gilligan's Island." Its halls are a maze of bullying, name-calling, alcohol and drug use, sexual obsession and predation. And that's just the faculty.

Our hero is one Daniel "Skippy" Juster, a slight, slightly disturbed second-year whose sudden collapse in the midst of a doughnut-eating contest forms the book's central mystery. Imagine Harry Potter dying at Hogwarts early on, and you've got a bead on the dark heart of this comic novel.

Backtracking a couple of months, we meet Skippy's mates, who include Ruprecht, his obese, brilliant, cosmology-obsessed roomie; Mario, the daft, horny Italian who has been carrying around a "lucky condom" in his wallet for three years; and Dennis, "an arch-cynic whose very dreams are sarcastic," keeper of a Nervous Breakdown Leaderboard on the frazzled faculty.

The exchanges between these boys are so profane and believable, they border on genius. Riffing on Mario's status as the David Beckham of masturbation, Dennis does a dead-on interview with a footballer: "Masturbating's changed a lot since I were a lad, Brian. In my day, we masturbated for the sheer love of it. . . . Your young masturbators today, though, it's all about the money, it's all about agents and endorsements."

These boys are brilliant enough to debate whether string theory explains why they can't get girls, or whether one could shag a mermaid, but they go dumb when a frustrated teacher pleads for one of them to name a single major combatant from World War I.

"We've been talking about this for the last two days."

"Uruguay?" one student finally suggests. And another: "The Jews?"

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