A quirky look at adolescence
Does anyone really ever get over adolescence? Maybe some, but even if you're one of the lucky ones, reading Paul Murray's new novel will bring all the roiling, churning madness of being a teenager right back into focus. The book claws into you right away, and its vividness never fades—impressive, considering it's nearly 700 pages long.
The novel is huge, in scope and theme as well as physical size. Set at an Irish boarding school called Seabrook, it follows roommates Daniel ('Skippy') and Ruprecht and a handful of their friends and teachers. As the title indicates, Skippy dies in the first few pages, at a donut shop, and the rest of the book is a backward and forward exploration of how, why, and what it means to everyone involved.
Murray writes from a wide range of perspectives, including 'Howard the Coward,' a sweet but inept history teacher; Carl, a warped young thug; Lori, the beautiful mess of a girl Carl and Skippy are both in love with; Father Green, a priest who's taught at Seabrook for eons but feels the religious leadership losing its hold; and the Automator, the school's acting principal, a terrifying embodiment of brisk efficiency and the secular business-model approach to education. There's even a chapter narrated by donut-shop manager. Multiple narrators can create a jittery, patchwork feel, but Murray writes so beautifully and distributes the voices so perfectly that, here, breadth becomes depth.
Skippy Dies is about all kinds of big things, including faith, death, love, lust, parenting, betrayal, revenge, class, fantasy, old guard vs young turk, the shimmering false paradise of drugs, the fundamental structure of the universe. But it's the little things that fix the story in your heart: the Seabrook boys' spirited conversations, the finely observed detail, the unflinching depiction of emotions. Here's Skippy observing his father one evening: "From the corner of his eye Skippy watches him watching the white dot zip over the green field between the different-coloured men, his face emptied out, his hand plucking emptily at the arm of the armchair, rolling together little balls of fuzz then pulling them free." That sentence, like the novel, contains equal parts joy and sadness: joy in the delights of language, sadness at the messy unfairness of life.
Skippy Dies is on the longlist for the Booker Prize, and Neil Jordan is said to be working on a film adaptation. It will be released simultaneously as a hardcover and as three boxed paperbacks. Don't wait for the movie.