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

By Jess Walter
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; C02

SKIPPY DIES

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?"

Murray, author of the 2004 novel "A Long Evening of Goodbye," is an expansive writer, bouncing around in time, tense and point of view. He's unafraid to tempt sentimentality, to write directly at his deep themes, to employ shameless cliffhangers. And he's talented enough to get away with most of it.

Even the walk-on characters are sharply drawn, like the pasty-white hip-hop boys Patrick "Da Knowledge" Noonan and Eoin "MC Sexecutioner" Flynn, who pimp-roll to a Halloween dance after a heated debate over which one gets to dress up as Tupac Shakur and which one Biggie Smalls.

Murray gives us a real villain, too, in the junior sociopath Carl, who, with his pal Barry, shakes down little kids for their ADHD medicine to sell to girls as diet pills. When Carl becomes Skippy's rival for the affections of a vacant, Frisbee-tossing cutie named Lori, the danger is real, the result chilling. Murray's description of Barry and Carl's harsh underworld has its own terrifying, alien beauty -- a place where "the blokes are all scobes in tracksuits and the birds are mingers with ponytails and earrings as big as their heads."

The mixture of tones is the book's true triumph, oscillating the banal with the sublime, the silly with the terrifying, the sweet with the tragic. In short, it's like childhood. In shorter, like life. The book's refrain -- that we never really outgrow being lovesick, awkward, bullying children -- isn't exactly breaking news, but it's never been truer. As one teacher says in the staff room, "The twenty-first century is the age of the kidult."

The kidult version of Skippy is his well-meaning history teacher, Howard "The Coward" Fallon, himself a graduate of Seabrook. Howard pines for the dreamy substitute, Miss McIntyre, and has his own bully to deal with in "the Automator," the school's slick acting principal. When Howard insists that the troubled Skippy is a harmless dreamer, the Automator replies: "Dreaming's not something we encourage here."

Split into three sections, "Hopeland," "Heartland" and "Ghostland" (it's also available as three separate paperbacks in a boxed set), "Skippy Dies" rips along for such a big book, the tension building as we work back up to the boy's death. Once he dies, again -- with 200 pages to go -- the book loses a bit of its drive and playfulness (how could it not?) and becomes, at times, almost unbearably dark.

But in this, too, Murray makes the right choices, refusing to spare kid and kidult alike the gorgeous harshness of the world, filled as it is with "a sadness everyone can recognize, a sadness that is binding and homelike."

Walter's latest novel, "The Financial Lives of the Poets," will be out in paperback in September.

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