Lately I’ve been in a mood to read more contemporary fiction than I usually do (a mood that’s probably fleeting and influenced by people raving about new books on Twitter), and so I picked up Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. I’m grateful to the people on Twitter because I enjoyed this one quite a lot.
The novel tells the story of Seabrook, a boys’ school in Dublin where Skippy is a student. In the opening pages, we witness Skippy dying a horrible death in a doughnut shop, and then the narrative backs up in time to tell about his life. The novel tells his story, and the story of his friends, classmates, and teachers. Skippy is a quiet, seemingly-normal kind of kid, the kind whose friends are much more colorful and memorable. Ruprecht, for example, is Skippy’s roommate (there are a few boarders at Seabrook, although most students commute) and is considered a scientific genius. Mario can think of one and only one thing, sex, and is capable of talking about it only in the crudest of ways. But Skippy is thoughtful and sensitive, and also in love with Lori, a student at the nearby girls’ school. Unfortunately for Skippy, Lori is way out of Skippy’s league, or everyone thinks so, and she has become involved with Carl, a drug-using, manipulative, thuggish bully.
The novel also tells the stories of the adults, most notably Seabrook’s history teacher Howard, who is unhappy in his current relationship and attracted to the beautiful substitute geography teacher (who is the only teacher who can really capture the boys’ attention in a school with very few women in it). Howard graduated from Seabrook and never thought he would end up there again, but his life has gone in unexpected directions. There is also Tom, another teacher and former Seabrook student whose relationship with Howard is long and complicated. And then there is the acting principle, whose devotion to Seabrook and its reputation is extreme to the point of being frightening.
Murray moves back and forth between these various stories, and in doing so, captures the feeling and mood of the place. The novel a reminder of just how hard it is to be a teenager — and how hard it is to teach teenagers. The kids aren’t in the least interested in learning anything, with the exception of Ruprecht, and only want to be free to hang out with each other and to dream about meeting girls, or, in some cases, to actually meet them. There’s a lot of longing, a lot of angst, and a quite a lot of drug use.
And, actually, the lives of the teachers aren’t so different. Howard can’t figure out what he wants out of a relationship and what he wants to do with his life, and he spends his time obsessed with the geography teacher, to the extent that he keeps teaching World War I beyond its allotted length of time because she expressed an interest in Robert Graves, a World War I poet. The novel is largely about dissatisfaction and longing, and this takes many forms: Howard’s obsession with a woman whom he hopes will transform his staid, boring life, for one. It’s also about Skippy’s hope that Lori — the beautiful girl who seems so far out of reach and whom he falls in love with while gazing at her from afar — will notice him. And it’s also about Ruprecht’s obsession with the possibility that other universes exist and that he might be able to make contact with aliens. Everyone hopes for something from outside them to transform their lives, when reality is boring at best and quite possibly very painful.
The story is an absorbing one, especially once it’s clear that the novel is going to tell how Skippy got to the horrible death scene in the doughnut shop. I found it hard to believe that Skippy really was going to die, and I kept rooting for him. Murray does some interesting things with narration, beginning many of the chapters about Skippy with a description of the video game he is playing, so that we are thrown into the world of the game and only eventually return to the story once again, mimicking the way Skippy loses himself in an alternate world and is reluctantly forced back into reality. Murray does a good job making us feel as though we know these characters and how their minds work and that we have something at stake in their decisions. The world he portrays is dark; he makes being a teenager seem like a curse and being an adult not a whole lot better. But the energy, compassion, and humor with which the story is told keeps some hope alive.