I just realised that The Jungle Book is not actually a list book. Oh nos! So I thought that I would do penance by reviewing like five list books or something. But then I realised I’d much rather write about Skippy Dies, a book I’ve been thinking about ever since I finished it a few weeks ago.
Skippy Dies opens with 14 year old Skippy lying on the floor of a donut shop in Dublin after a donut eating contest in which he ate no donuts. Surrounded by strangers and socially inept but brilliant friend Ruprecht, his last action is to painfully write ‘Tell Lori’ on the floor in syrup.
The story then rewinds and shifts its focus, settling at first on Howard, a history teacher at Skippy’s prestigious school, Seabrook College. Howard has his own painfully history with the school, as do fellow teachers Farley and Tom Roche, as well as Father Green who hates the children almost as much as French, his chosen subject. Paul Murray switches cleanly between their stories and those of Skippy and his friends – Dennis, Mario, Geoff and Ruprecht – as well as the semi-sociopathic Carl and Lori, the popular and beautiful star of the girls’ school next door. The teenage drama is significantly more serious and damaging than the early middle aged angst, and all this is thrown in with World War I, poetry, office politics and string theory.
It is really depressing. I mean it opens with a pretty awful teen death so that shouldn’t be a surprise but it is completely tragic. The lives of the adults are strained and tired, retracing the paths of their childhood fears and mistakes without ever breaking free. Meanwhile they are completely ignorant of (when not trivialising) the intense emotions and the real problems that their students are facing.
Paul Murray’s dialogue is amazing, perfectly capturing the banter of Skippy’s friends as well as the veiled menace of Father Green and Lori’s pop star imitations. But it was his stream-of-consciousness Carl that completely sold me. Carl should be awful to read but the more I did the more sorry for him I felt. But then Murray doesn’t do the clichéd thing of completely redeeming him either. So he sits in the middle as both tormented and tormentor, just like a real person.
My friend once said to me that the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet isn’t that they die, but that they die every time. I felt kind of like that with Skippy Dies. You know it’s coming from page one but the tragedy comes from watching all the things going wrong while no-one steps in or knows how to help. It is incredibly painful and not always fun to read because the people in it are so flawed and careless of each other. But that’s also what makes it so beautiful and rewarding and real.