Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

Faber and Faber
Originally published in Great Britain, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin
672 pages

If you're looking for a really good book to read, this is the one.  Don't just add it to your TBR pile...go get a copy and read it. It's nearly 700 pages, but you won't even notice, especially if you buy it in the 3-box set.  It is undoubtedly one of the funniest books I've ever read, but at the same time, quite poignant; it is a book that will at times tug at your heartstrings.

The story begins in the first book, called "Hopeland," and continues through the next two books, "Heartland" and "Ghostland."  In the very first scene at Ed's Doughnut House on a Friday evening in November, 14-year old Skippy, whose real name is Daniel Juster, is having a doughnut-eating race with his friend Ruprecht Van Doren, who boasts that he has not been beaten in "fifteen consecutive races."  But something goes wrong and (this is not a spoiler) Skippy dies after leaving the words "Tell Lori" written in jam on the floor.  And then the author takes his readers back to fall term at Seabrook College, the oldest Catholic boys' school in Ireland -- to find out exactly what brought things to this point.

Skippy is a student who boards at Seabrook. He gets his nickname from buck teeth that cause him to make a sound when he speaks  like the voice of a talking kangaroo on TV.  Until just shortly before midterm, Skippy had been an excellent student, is on the school's swim team, and generally liked, but his grades have been falling recently.  Skippy enjoys playing a video game called "Hopeland," a kind of mystic quest, which will increase in importance as the story goes on.  He shares a room with Ruprecht, for whom 
the world is a compendium of fascinating facts just waiting to be discovered, and a difficult maths problem is like sinking into a nice warm bath.
Ruprecht's goal is to study at Stanford, and his hero is physicist Hideo Tamashi, whose work entails trying to solve the Big Bang via ten-dimensional string theory. Ruprecht has a lab in the basement where he conducts experiments which he hopes will lead him to the secret origins of the universe. Skippy's other friends include Dennis, who is an "arch-cynic, whose very dreams are sadistic, hates the world and everything in it..." who thinks Ruprecht talks "non-stop bollocks." He also has Geoff, Niall and Mario as friends, although these characters (and many of the other boys around Skippy) are really less developed as characters than Ruprecht and Dennis.  After thinking he sees a UFO one day, Skippy looks through Ruprecht's telescope and sees a girl throwing a Frisbee. This is Lori, a girl from St. Brigid's, a "smoking-hot" girl who immediately captures Skippy's attention.  The problem is that another Seabrook boy, Barry, has become infatuated with Lori, and Barry is bad news.

But this book is not just about the boys of Seabrook -- the school's faculty and staff are just as much a part of the story.  One of the main characters is Howard Fallon, the school's history teacher, who himself graduated from Seabrook some ten years back, and is haunted by an episode that took place at that time. He's back at the school after a stint in the world of finance. There's Father Green, the French teacher, whose name the boys have translated into French as "Pere-vert". His calling, as he sees it, is to snuff out sin, but at the same time, he feels he must keep Skippy in a state of innocence. He has his own inner demons to deal with as well.  Then there's Greg Costigan, the acting principal of Seabrook in the absence of Father Furlong, who has suffered a recent heart attack. Costigan is snarkily referred to as "the Automator," and believes that the Paraclete Order is on its last legs, and that the only solution is to modernize the school, with himself at the helm. He believes that Seabrook's history as the oldest Catholic boys' school is brandable -- and that the school's role is to prepare the students to "get up there on the world stage and duke it out with the best of them."  He wants to roll with the times --
Change is not a dirty word. Neither for that matter is profit. Profit is what enables change, positive change that helps everyone, such as for example demolishing the 1865 building and constructing an entirely new twenty-first-century wing in its place
and of course, the wing just might be named after him.  Costigan represents progress in a very anti-traditionalist sort of way; he doesn't care that the boys actually learn anything, just that they pass their exams to continue Seabrook's reputation, come what may.  The reputation of the school is everything and must remain so, no matter what.   Fallon, on the other hand, begins to understand that history is something of value -- and that teaching others to care about the past may be just as  important  as throwing them into the competitive capitalist arena. 

Although Skippy Dies is often so funny you can't help but laugh out loud (for example, there's a scene where the boys' English teacher has just gone over the meaning of  Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and one of the kids takes his interpretation to a whole new level),  the story is at times tragic and heartbreaking. It's a good look at how these teenagers understand and interpret themselves in the face of today's world (including sex and drug use) how they see adults, and how despair can cause loss of hope and yet for some, become a building experience. It's about the hold of memory on the human psyche and the importance of remembering. There are other themes at work as well -- including the socio-economic situation of modern Ireland and the role of the Catholic church in the face of all of the scandals that dog it -- making this very long book just fly by. 

I loved this book. Absolutely. It's extremely well written, although it does get bogged down a bit for a short time in the middle.  But on the whole, it is most excellent.  Which is why I do not understand for the life of me how it did not make it on to the Booker Prize Shortlist, announced today. It is by far better than any of the books I've yet read, much more accessible and extremely reader oriented than its companions on the list.

I have absolutely zero qualms about recommending this book. It is so good you will not be able to stop reading it.  I really hope it becomes a runaway bestseller.


  1. Well done review, how could I not be nice. Crime is one of my favorite genres. Thanks to Cym Lowell's book blog party, I found you. Will be back to read more.
    J Perry

  2. Thanks for coming by! I've been sort of not here lately, so I'm way behind on posting, but I'll catch back up.

  3. This book sounds wonderful! Thanks so much for the review! This is what I love about book blogging - finding out about books that I might never have seen!

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

    Came here through Cym's Book Review Party!

  4. Not come across this author , so thanks for the introduction.Although it will have to go on my TBR, as at this moment, right next to me, I have a pile of books from the library flirting outrageously with me - to be the one & you know have desperately vicious books can get, if ignored
    Thanks again

  5. @Julie: It IS a wonderful book! It's like nothing I've read before. And I love finding out about new books as well. The TBR pile increases so often!

    @Parrish lantern: You're very welcome. I think that based on your posts and your interests that you would actually enjoy Skippy Dies. And yes, I can relate -- which I why although I support libraries, I would rather just buy books -- I don't like deadlines!

  6. Great review NancyO! I had wondered about this book given the title brought back memories of the Skippy the Bush Kangaroo TV series from my childhood - thanks for explaining the reference.

  7. I'd never heard of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo before, so I went to Youtube to watch the opening of an episode of the show. It sort of reminds me of Flipper done on land, or Lassie set in in Australia. I was entranced with animal heroes as a kid...

    But I was also amazed that someone commented that they'd they'd watched it every Sunday morning in Michigan...so now I wonder if it was on here in the US and I missed it somehow.

    After all of that, I hope if you get around to the book that you like it.


Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.