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Dublin boy's school as a microcosm of the great beyond

  • Jul 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 to the appeal of a book that may seem pitched more at the J.K. Rowling than the J.D. Salinger set. However, as an "mature" reader, I reckon that adults will enjoy (or cringe) more at passages such as: "there are only the pale torpid days, stringing by one like another, a clouded necklace of imitation pearls, and a love binding him to a life he never actually chose. Is this all it's ever going to be? A grey tapestry of okayness? Frozen in the moment he drifted into?"
The plot expands ambitiously. "Hopeland" introduces the college, the boys and masters. "Heartland" brings romance attempted or achieved to various aspirants. Parallel universes beckon others. "Ghostland" darkens the action as the enemies loom. It takes in poetry, physics and virtual reality in an ambitious manner reminding us of the possibilities of release from the mundane.

In a narrative merging the imaginary with the actual environments, it may prove an early foray into a 21st century novel that mixes the way that young people enter stories that they see as well as those they have (or have not bothered to) read. Even in a dumbed-down secondary (in more ways than one) world, that of consumer-addled suburbia in a crowded and weary Irish city landscape, Murray seasons his chronicle with insights into ideas. He reminds you of the power of what lies beyond what we can see.
This complicates this story, which begins to unfold on different levels, akin to the mind-altering nature of what a circle of Seabrook's teens find. There's some unevenness in tone; a tale this elaborate does wander. Murray's style relies now and then on too many adverbs, but Murray's excitement shows through his obsessed characters. The conniving figures peopling Seabrook College-- from teachers, students, and the game world that draws in the youths-- do demand patience to get to know them, in their adolescent banter or mature ennui. Murray can delineate both the domestic frustrations of middle age and the terrors of teen-inflicted torment. 
It's gently satirical. It dares to reach further than most books do that send-up growing up. There's a humanism here and a respect for learning, for all the double-entendres and schoolroom follies. And, as the title shows, death comes, on page one. Maybe it's not Beckett's "Malone Dies," but there's the grimly wry Irish touch of mortality, here at a doughnut shop run by malaprop-mocked Chinese immigrants.
Murray seems to have come up through such cruel society as reduced to this boy's school-- on both sides of the lectern. It can be bruising and tender to compare your own coming of age to that endured by the teens at Seabrook. I liked his ear for idiom and slang, and his knack for entertaining but sharp explorations of fads, trends, peer pressures and their impact on fading tradition in his home island.
Therefore, for those looking for 1) a sprawling evocation of how Irish life's altering under affluence, 2) how teenaged boys change and don't change from how they've been, and 3) how literacy however threatened by electronics and gaming may be able to still immerse you and these characters into intricate, panoramic plots, a bit messy but all the more accessible for their approach that takes in so much of modern life-- this novel's recommended. It takes you away from the everyday into the fantastic. But it remembers you must come back down to earth, after all.

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December 17, 2010
Cool review! I was just reading @RebeccaSchinsky's review of Skippy Dies and found your review as well. You might like her title and inclusion of Harry Potter!
More Skippy Dies: A Novel reviews
review by . December 10, 2010
   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 …
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 …
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John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #48
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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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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