Tuesday October 19th, 2010

Love and Death at Boarding School

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Faber & Faber, 672 pp., $28.00

For fans of truth in advertising, in particular, reading Skippy Dies will offer immediate gratification, as the title character shuffles off this mortal coil on page 5. Skippy is the nickname of Daniel Juster, a student at Seabrook College, a Catholic boarding school in Dublin. And in the book’s opening scene, Skippy falls off his chair during a doughnut-eating contest with his portly, nerdy friend Ruprecht van Doren, and expires.

The book immediately flashes back to days when Skippy was alive and well. Physically well, at least. Emotionally, he has many of the warring maladies common to 14-year-old boys: life force battling ennui, lust wrestling with awkwardness, and a still mostly pure heart beset by callous adults.

The object of his crush is Lori, a girl from a neighboring school who appears to be out of his league. Or as one friend of Skippy’s puts it to another friend, “You’re saying that Skippy fancying her is like some kind of slime or ooze fancying, you know, Gisele. It’s like some sort of disgusting slime or algae seeping over to Gisele and telling her to get her coat.”

About the rituals, travails, and perverted wise cracks of boyhood, Murray can be very funny, if not groundbreaking. The kids return to school from a one-week vacation to find a bevy of incident: “There have been tonsillectomies, orthodontal work, sexual awakenings, haircuts.” They address each other with elegant sobriquets like “blowjob,” as when one boy reacts to Ruprecht’s plan to beam classical music into distant space: “Blowjob, what’s the point of playing a load of boring music into space? You want them to think that everyone on Earth is like a hundred years old?” They discuss a creative, lewd, and surprisingly convincing interpretation of Robert Frost’s most famous poem.

When Murray moves away from the boys, which he does with some frequency, to investigate the lives of the school’s adults, he remains on sure footing. The portrait of Howard Fallon, a Seabrook alum who has ended up back at the school as a history teacher, is one that could have been written by Nick Hornby, humorous but gentle and sympathetic.

If Hornby had written the novel, Howard might have been the star. As it is, Murray’s book doesn’t really have a nucleus. It’s certainly not Skippy, who, a few weeks after I finished the book, is one of the least distinct cast members in my recollection. Ruprecht, the overweight outcast who’s obsessed with black holes and string theory, and for whom “a difficult maths problem is like sinking into a nice warm bath,” comes closest to taking center stage.

The lack of a guiding force isn’t a fatal flaw. Murray is clearly interested in panorama, and for the most part he does it well. But at 670 pages, the novel feels unnecessarily long for the way it handles the major theme of adolescence. Early on, Murray cheekily cuts off any current popular expectations of a novel set at a boarding school: “Any Harry Potter-type fantasies tend to get squashed pretty quickly: life in the Tower, an ancient building composed mostly of draughts, is a deeply unmagical experience . . . .” But while Skippy Dies is certainly not Harry Potter territory, it’s also not strikingly original territory.

And because of this, it’s hard not to hold some of the book’s more grandiose gestures against the final judgment of it, fairly or not. In the UK, the novel was published as a single volume, but also in an edition of three volumes in a boxed set, a la Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The back-cover copy refers to not just Harry Potter (cake, had and eaten) but Infinite Jest. Only occasionally in the novel itself does Murray’s ambition interfere with the story—his few jarring forays into second person (“You take out your phone. It gazes back at you blank and placid.”) come off as stilted efforts to be more experimental.

And though Murray is consistently smart, the novel never quite reaches a level of profundity about death and the universe. Big subjects, it’s true, but they’re at the heart of this book, and when they’re engaged it’s hard not to pine for the more rigorous searching of fellow UK writers like Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark or Roddy Doyle.

One British critic, among many who raved about Skippy Dies when it was published there earlier this year, said, “[t]he writing is second to none.” If you can forgive that it’s at least 200 pages too long, Murray’s novel is a treat worth enjoying. But on the basis of reviews like the one cited above, it’s also been the beneficiary of a modest case of grade inflation.

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.