Friday, December 09, 2016

[Books] Book Look: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

In this sharply funny, yet ultimately tragic novel, the title character dies in the first chapter. I don't know if it makes structural sense. The rest of the book is conventionally chronological. The first half is prelude to the death and the second half post-mortem. Thus you are set up reading the first half, having Skippy's character built into a sympathetic, somewhat fey adolescent, following his interactions with his rogue's gallery of boarding school chums, watching his episodes of joy and despair, all the while knowing he is going to buy the farm in a donut shop near his school.

There may be good structural reasons for this. It may generate a certain emotional effect that that the author thought important, although for me, I can't see where I would have been struck differently if Skippy's death had been a surprise. No, I choose to think the reason the author did this was because he is Irish and therefore this novel had to be about the past and the dead from the very start.

The setting is one of the premier boys public schools in Ireland, and to a lesser extent its girl's corollary next door. (By "public school" I mean private school for those of us from the U.S.) We are given a full slate of adults and adolescents and follow their journey over the course of the year. The cast is really too large to catalog, but they are wonderfully fleshed out. Murray has quite a talent for drawing a fully functional character in short order. In this task, Murray is brutally honest. The young boys run the gamut from nerdy teacher's pets to sociopathic criminals. The girls next door have well developed instincts for manipulation to guard their ultimate desperation. The adults all have the best of intentions yet they are all insufficient or ineffectual in some way.

What makes this depressive stuff palatable is that Murray never loses his senses of humor and absurdity. In the first half this builds a great sense of identification with the characters and their foibles have an endearing comedic feel to them. Then things go dark after Skippy dies. But even then it's not so dire as to make it unpalatable. There is enormous frustration, anger, and sorrow but never hopelessness. That's a tricky line to toe and, again, Murray is up to the task.

As I pointed out, bubbling under all this is the past -- personal past, institutional past, national past -- it all weighs heavily on the characters and their motivations. Then, naturally, when Skippy dies it dominates the last half the book and essentially doubles down on the pure Irishness of everything. To some extent however, most of the characters manage to escape the past at least in some sense by the end, so perhaps the ending is not so Irish after all.

Murray is a fine stylist, able to build complex characters while using straightforward common English. There is nothing highfalutin' in the prose, although he does occasionally indulge in a bit or over-flowery description. He also dances with tropes -- pedophilia, eating disorders, drugged up kids, detached adults -- but generally he feels true to reality.

Should you read Skippy Dies? Almost certainly yes. It is one of those rare novels that is entertaining and insightful while being eminently approachable. I delighted in it as I think most people would.