Skippy Dies might just be my favourite book of this year. It’s been on my radar for a while, but I held off on reading it because I didn’t quite believe that the deceptively basic-sounding plot (boys get up to no good in an Irish boarding school) could fill up such a brick of a book. As it turns out, this book’s got more than enough heartbreaking moments, hilarious one-liners, and criss-crossing storylines to hold even my shortish attention span through its 600+ pages. It’s also full of academic tangents – whole scenes devoted to weaving in bits of World War I poetry, string theory, and Irish folklore with the present day narrative (this is why you gotta love a story set in a university or, as in this case, a boarding school called Seabrook).
Several unique voices tell this story: Skippy, the neglected, abused hero – hopelessly innocent, in love, and obsessed with elfish role-playing computer games. Ruprecht Van Doren, his obese roommate and scientific genius – obsessed with M-theory, Professor Tamashi of Stanford, and parallel universes. Howard, the mid-life crisis poster boy and History teacher, who seems to grow both a conscience and an aptitude for teaching as the book goes on. Lori, the beautiful object of Skippy’s attention, who suffers a very modern form of abuse at the hands of her superficial parents, who try to cheer her up after Skippy’s death by using the resulting media exposure as a modelling career springboard. And Carl, the self-harming, drug-dealing, teenage psychopath who forms a dangerous love triangle with Skippy and Lori.
The impressive supporting cast members are given just the right amount of detail to make their contributions matter. Dennis, a minor character and Skippy’s most cynical friend, stands out with only a smattering of lines to call his own. He thinks everything is shit, he doesn’t buy into Ruprecht’s blend of science/magic even when the other boys get swept away, and he can never resist a good zinger. His grown-up mixture of wit and self-awareness made me wonder if he might be Murray’s little attempt at a cameo. And although the other narrating characters include rapists and drug dealers, only one, Acting Principal Greg Costigan, fails to show any pinpricks of conscience, or feel any sense of personal failure when Skippy dies. Though, I should probably give Murray credit for sneaking in one mischievous little aside, which almost, ALMOST made me feel sorry for the soulless boarding school “Automator.” We’re treated to a bit of Costigan’s homespun philosophy at the school concert while he listens to a rendition of Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall:
“Lost in the strutting, spiky rhythms, Greg soon forgets about the unpleasant business with Howard. We don’t need no education . . . Might surprise his pupils to learn that Greg had his own band once upon a time. Called themselves the Ugly Rumours, used to cover this very song. Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone! And now he’s Acting Principal of a school! Life’s funny that way.”
This passage is a great example of Murray’s ability to deliver biting satire without losing sympathy for the characters he’s parroting. Even when he mimics Lori’s schoolgirl question-mark-inflected chatter and shockingly illiterate text messages, you don’t lose the sense that each character is important and deserving of our sympathy.
Murray never seems to take himself too seriously, which may just have cost him his (deserved, in my opinion) spot on the Booker shortlist. He fills his pages with fart jokes and curlicue “Bethani” lettering (for an ubiquitous Britneyesque pop star). These casual touches don’t undermine the emotional resonance of the rest of the book – if anything, I think they make the sad parts more touching, more authentic. It’s this combination of the funny and moving, trivial and fundamental, that took me off guard. For example, if you hadn’t already noticed, Skippy – the late-blooming hero – Dies. The death occurs almost casually, before chapter one even begins. It happens in a doughnut shop, and Skippy uses his last moments in that doughnut shop to write “Tell Lori” on the floor in jelly. So pardon me for breezing past this and assuming that the death was a red herring, that the real book would be about something else.
As it turns out, Skippy actually Lives in a large chunk of this book. In the space of a couple hundred pages, I managed to develop denial-induced amnesia, not unlike a certain thirteen year old named ME watching Titanic for the third time and hoping that it wouldn’t actually sink and Leo would live. I started looking for ways that somehow Skippy could survive, but in the end, it really does happen, and all the warning in the world does nothing to cushion the sting of the tragedy. In the post-death section of the book, almost every character is suffering from their own form of denial. And not in a wishy-washy “I can’t believe he’s gone” kind of way, but in a desperate, logic-defying kind of way. In his grief, ex-roommate Ruprecht gets together the old gang of boys in an attempt to communicate with Skippy beyond the grave, with the aid of battered french horns, Bethani’s hit single, and tinfoil hats. By the time their supernatural contact attempt goes live at the school concert, you already know what kind of book this is, but you still hope that somehow, their pathetic experiment will work.
This book will make you cry for Skippy, make you laugh at the exploits of “Van Blowjob” and co, make you wonder about death and love and evil, and will even make you believe that an Optimus Prime doll makes its way to the eleventh dimension.