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Like Harry Potter, But With Drugs, Dirty Jokes, and Doughnuts

  • Dec 10, 2010
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Imagine if the Harry Potter books were written for adults, set at an all-boys boarding school in Dublin, and had dirtier jokes and a more serious theme, and you’ll have the phenomenal Skippy Dies by Paul Murray.

The titular event takes place in the book’s opening pages when fourteen-year-old Daniel “Skippy” Juster, one of Seabrook College’s punier students, dies on the floor of the local doughnut shop just moments after writing his final message on the floor in jelly he desperately smashed out of a doughnut. Skippy’s overweight genius roommate Ruprecht Van Doren looks on wondering if Skippy was poisoned and quickly realizes that no, Skippy hadn’t actually eaten anything at the doughnut shop. So the circumstances of Skippy’s death are mysterious at best and highly suspicious at worst, and the remainder of the book (divided into three sections: Hopeland, Heartland, and Ghostland) delves into the daily lives of the people of Seabrook College and the events that led up to Skippy’s death.

But make no mistake—Skippy Dies is no whodunit mystery, and we’re not looking for a smoking gun. 

If there’s any mystery to be solved in this book, it is a psychological one, a question of what happens when we realize life isn’t—and never will be—what we expected it to be. The adolescent characters in Skippy Dies are by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. They are typical teenage boys, and have they have the requisite obsession with sex and dirty jokes to prove it. Case in point:

Dennis, who has been unusually quiet this lunchtime, speaks up. “I’ve been thinking about that Robert Frost poem,” he says. “I don’t think it’s about making choices at all.”

“What’s it about, so?” Geoff says.

“Anal sex,” Dennis says.

“Anal sex?”

“How’d you figure, Dennis?”

“Well, once you see it, it’s pretty obvious. Just look at what he says. He’s in a wood, right? He sees two roads in front of him. He takes the one less travelled. What else could it be about?”

“Uh, woods?”

“Going for a walk?”

“Don’t you listen in class? Poetry’s never about what it says it’s about, that’s the whole point.”

And there’s plenty of this in Skippy Dies, adolescent humor and jokes about how mermaids are sexy but completely useless, given that they are all-fin below the waist. But the humor and authentic—really, truly, deeply authentic—dialogue are a way in to exploring the darker parts of growing up, and while I laughed my way through the first 400 pages of this nearly 700-page-long novel, I choked back tears through much of the rest of it.

All of Murray’s characters are facing disappointments and failures, the kind that are universal but each of which feels uniquely awful and more horrible than what its owner believes anyone else could possibly experience. And it’s not just the boys who are struggling. Murray allows us to look into the lives of the teachers and Paraclete priests who run Seabrook and to see the threads of humanity (and loneliness, disappointment, vanity, victory, and humor) that tie them to the young boys they educate.

Skippy Dies is darker than one might expect, but only if “realistic” and “dark” are synonymous. It is, however, also a fabulously fun book to read and well worth every last one of its 661 pages. And as a bonus, there are passages like this one, taken from a scene in which Howard lectures to his history class.

We tend to think of [history] as something solid and unchanging, appearing out of nowhere etched in stone like the Ten Commandments. But history, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot.

This is a smart, dead-on novel about growing up and facing reality and what happens to those of us for whom the transition is far from smooth. It is funny enough to temper the sad moments without trivializing them, and every last one of Murray’s characters is fun to read, if not entirely lovable. Paul Murray received a well-deserved mention on the long list for this year’s Booker Prize, and if you ask me, his being left off the shortlist is nothing short of an injustice.

But I guess he’d probably say that’s just life for you.

Skippy Dies is out now in hardback and as a boxed set of three paperbacks (one for each section of the book). I don’t care which format you buy. I just want you to read it!

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December 17, 2010
going on my books to read list :)
December 17, 2010
Hahaha, an adult Harry Potter? I like the sound of that! :D
December 15, 2010
Hah, I LOVE Harry Potter, and if Daniel Radcliffe's alter ego from Extras! is any indication...I'll love this novel too! Great review Rebecca! ^_^
More Skippy Dies: A Novel reviews
review by . July 30, 2010
Neither Hogwarts nor "Catcher in the Rye," this captures the "de-dreamification" of being a boy of fourteen and a teacher at twenty-eight. Murray sets this in a Catholic day & boarding school in Dublin, where he lives. The novel yesterday's been placed on the Booker Prize list, so it'll surely gain attention. It's long-- 660 pages to be divided into three volumes for its official release.       These handsomely watercolored covers add …
review by . August 18, 2010
About a hundred pages into Skippy Dies, I put it down for the evening and, as I walked away from it, realized I missed it already. I'd grown fond of the book. Surely that's an odd emotion to feel for a comic novel, especially a good one as this one is. Comic novels may be funny, but above all, the best ones (Gulliver's Travels, for instance, or Ulysses) are savage: they take no hostages as they narrate the lives and antics of the characters contained inside them. And that's definitely true of Skippy. …
review by . September 20, 2010
I'm the product of an Irish Catholic boarding school for boys. In September 1968, at the tender age of 11, I left the warm (over-)protective bosom of home and family and became one of the 80 or so boys in the first year class at a Franciscan boarding school, about 25 miles north of Dublin, and 160 miles from home. The experience, particularly the first year, was incredibly brutal. But it was also entirely necessary, and completely transformative. I can trace back almost all of what I consider …
review by . March 04, 2011
Skippy Dies broke a lot of my rules for literature and still allowed me to love it. I can't stand violence to children in what is, essentially, an entertainment. Really graphic, unhealthy sexual activity is another one that bothers me. Drug abuse is too hard for me to relate to and comes across as an author struggling for some sort of street cred. I'm really square and don't like being manipulated. And I can just picture the editor who leans across the desk to whisper to an aspiring …
review by . August 07, 2010
I had some trouble deciding on the number of stars for this review. Murray is a gifted writer, a wordsmith who can bring characters to life in a few pages, make you care about them as if they were real people, describing their physical characteristics, their character faults, and their secret fears in a way that few writers can. He gets the modern teen-aged boy down with great accuracy, their false bravado, their vicious competition, and their reluctance to let adults know anything about them. He …
About the reviewer
Rebecca Joines Schinsky ()
Ranked #326
Panty-throwing, book-loving wild woman behind The Book Lady's Blog. Reader, critic, lover of indie bookstores, National Book Critics Circle member.
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It’s no spoiler to acknowledge that Skippy, the main character in Murray’s second novel, does indeed die, since the boy is a goner by page 5 of the prologue. Following his character’s untimely demise, Murray takes the reader back in time to learn more about the sweetly engaging Skippy—a 14-year-old student at a historic Catholic boys’ school in Dublin—and his friends Ruprecht, a near genius who is passionately interested in string theory; Mario, a self-styled lothario; and Dennis, the resident cynic. We also meet the girl with whom Skippy is hopelessly in love, Lori, and his bête noire, Carl, a drug-dealing, psychopathic fellow student who is also in love with Lori. The faculty have their innings, too, especially the history teacher Howard (the Coward) Fallon, who has also fallen in love—he with the alluring substitute teacher Miss McIntyre. And then there is the truly dreadful assistant principal, Greg Costigan. In this darkly comic novel of adolescence (in some cases arrested), we also learn about the unexpected consequences of Skippy’s death, something of contemporary Irish life, and a great deal about the intersections of science and metaphysics and the ineluctable interconnectedness of the past and the present. At 672 pages, this is an extremely ambitious and complex novel, filled with parallels, with sometimes recondite references to Irish folklore, with quantum physics, and with much more. Hilarious, haunting, and ...
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ISBN-10: 0865479437
ISBN-13: 978-0865479432
Author: Paul Murray
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Faber & Faber
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