October 2010

Janet Potter

fiction

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

The coming of age story is one we tell ourselves over and over again. Even though the main characters are generally either implausibly precocious or uninterestingly naďve. Even though they tend to put everyday adjectives to the awkward task of describing adolescent kissing. Even though, by nature, they seem to end badly.

But this moment in time, when something in your youth indelibly impacts the kind of adult you’re going to be, is one we continually want to examine. It’s so often done poorly -- most thoughtful bildungsromans are either heavily pessimistic or mythically triumphant -- but Paul Murray’s carries on with humor, gravity, and compassion as if it’s effortless, as if he has no idea of the rarity of what he’s achieving.

Skippy Dies is the story of one fall at Seabrook, a Catholic boarding school for boys outside Dublin. Daniel “Skippy” Juster, a student, dies in the first chapter, and then the book backtracks to tell the story of the months leading up to his death. At the center of the story are Skippy’s friends, a winning pack of dorks that includes Ruprecht, an obese genius obsessed with string theory, and a sex-crazed Italian kid named Mario. Of course, all of them are obsessed with sex to a slightly lesser degree. They’re at that point where they’re equally fascinated by Transformers and girls, and they spend as much time trying to figure out time travel as they do claiming to have slept with each other’s moms.

That’s right, time travel. Ruprecht is confident enough in his knowledge of string theory that he believes with some tin foil and the right electrical surge you can pass into other dimensions. The other boys, although somewhat skeptical, are all talked into helping him with his secret experiments in the school’s basement, one of which is deemed successful when the surge causes a plastic Optimus Prime to disappear.

It’s impossible not to love these boys who think they’ve transported an action figure through time and space. They cling so endearingly to the belief that they’re on the verge of outsmarting the universe, probably because the universe, in all other aspects of their life, seems to have it in for them. Ruprecht is bullied constantly for being fat and smart. Dennis and Geoff are told to be more like Ruprecht. Skippy’s mom is sick, but he doesn’t tell anybody except his girlfriend Lori, whose drug-dealing ex-boyfriend Carl slashes Skippy’s bike tires when he goes to visit her.

Who is there to guide them through these first encounters with true pain, love, and disillusionment? Lustful priests, absent parents, overbearing coaches, and apathetic teachers. No wonder they want to believe in time travel. They find themselves fully confronted by life, and fully unprepared to handle it. As Murray points out, when they boys are faced with a particularly cruel injustice, “It is total bollocks; but who’s going to do anything about it? Geoff, who cried at the end of Free Willy 2? Niall, always cast as the heroine in school plays? Bob Shambles, with his collection of naturally occurring hexagons? Victor Hero, probably the least aptly named boy in history?”

Murray places them so perfectly at this turning point. The dorm and classroom scenes where the boys jostle and banter and play video games and light farts on fire show them at their most boyish, but within these scenes you see their loyalty and perspicacity towards each other, and their righteous outrage at being wronged. You see them already becoming adults.

Unfortunately, the adults of Murray’s world don’t do much credit to the stature. Exactly eleven years before Skippy’s death, a different tragedy befell Seabrook. Three of the students involved are now teachers at the school, and they’re hardly doing better than the boys. Howard, now a history teacher, was widely blamed for what happened, and has never been able to disprove the reputation for weakness he got as a result. Uniquely positioned to help the boys learn from their situation, it merely becomes obvious that he never learned anything from his. Which, it has to be said, puts the whole concept of coming of age in question. Perhaps that formative moment when what is childish and what is mature in you seem equal is not the moment when adulthood takes over, but merely the first of many times -- a lifetime of times -- the two will face off. Howard still lets the childish side win most of the time. He still wants to escape as much as Skippy and Ruprecht.

This dimension seemingly couldn’t do less to win you over. Girls lie to you some of the time, adults lie to you most of the time, and the only reason Optimus Prime disappeared, I’m sorry to say, is because one of the other boys hid him in his underpants. At one point Skippy wonders if “the world is not just a bare stage where magic sometimes but usually doesn’t take place, but rather a force actively opposed to magic.” Perhaps. But what’s wonderful about Murray is how hopeful he is that his characters will be happy despite all he puts them through. His world, along with tragedy, is full of good poetry, Pachelbel’s Canon, and first love. His characters, despite an aversion to maturity, are funny, forgiving, and ultimately resilient. Paul Murray has big ideas, to be sure, about love, loss, honor, failure, and growing up, but his ability to eloquently convey them never overshadows his inherent belief that simple people are extraordinary.

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Faber & Faber
ISBN: 0865479437
672 Pages