Sunday, December 19, 2010

SKIPPY DIES by Paul Murray (2010) Hamish Hamilton

Paul Murray's boys' boarding school bildungsroman, SKIPPY DIES, has been on my must-read list for several weeks now and on my radar since it made the Man Booker Longlist alongside Emma Donoghue's ROOM earlier this year. It's a brick at 600+ pages, so I needed chunks of dedicated time to inch my way through it--the first few days of our school break have afforded me that luxury.

Since I teach at a school for boys, I expected to find familiar territory between the covers, but not so much that I would feel Murray were writing directly to me. How often do you pick up a book and feel the author reaching out from the pages to make your particular acquaintance? That is what Murray has done for me in this big, sad, boisterous, beautiful book about the idiosyncratic community of teachers and students and the Old Boy network that supports both.

As its title declares, Daniel "Skippy" Juster dies and that death is no surprise as we see it played out in the opening pages. What is more surprising is the palpable tension with which Murray reveals the circumstances that lead to this athlete's unexpected passing that unravel over the remaining 650 pages.

As much as the story had me in its thrall, and the characters felt astonishingly familiar, it was Murray's language play and observations about human frailty that captivated me throughout the novel. When you spend your days in the company of teenaged boys, you will catch gems like, "Mermaids don't have beavers, you clown. Even if you were amphibious you couldn't have sex with them." Or, "If James Clerk Maxwell had said, 'more beaver, less maths,' we wouldn't have electricity. Maths and the universe go hand in hand." The president of Dublin's tony Seabrook School for Boys is "one of those sleek, silver-haired, ageless men who manage to connote prestige and power without having expressed a single memorable thought." And, working for a school where the parents are also the clients, you might agree with snarky Father Green, "Ah yes. Go easy: the motto of the age. For these children, as for their parents, everything must be easy." And, when Old Boys return to their alma mater for events, "each reintroduction repeated a truth at once shocking and totally banal: people grow up and become orthodontists." Yet, "once you've seen someone firing peas out of his nostril, it's difficult to take him seriously as a hedge fund manager." I know this to be true.

One of the final thoughts is given appropriately to Lori (Skippy's own dying wish involved her) who is puzzling out her existence: "Maybe instead of strings, it's stories things are made of, an infinite number of tiny vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken in a jillion different pieces, that's why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story...until you've got something that...might look like a letter or even a whole word."

This novel is not for the weak of heart. There are genuinely loathsome characters that will make your smacking hand itch. But, the way that Ruprecht, Skippy and their peculiar coterie of boarding school chums struggle to find belonging will be familiar and make you grateful that that particular tumultuous time is decidedly in your past.


Steph said...

Great review! I did buy the book but have been waffling back and forth about it for some unknown reason. Maybe because everyone simply raves about it, I don't know.

I am rather weak of heart, I admit. But your review nonetheless also brought out the points that attracted me to the book in the first place. Thank you!

Steph said...

PS. I've moved it higher in the to-read pile... :)

Also have you read Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris? It's a good one!