Paul Murray: Skippy Dies
The title is somewhat intriguing, conjuring up, as it does both images of tragedy but also of the children’s TV programme, Skippy the Kangaroo. Both are valid. The opening scene is, in fact, the death of Skippy, not the kangaroo but a fourteen year old boy, real name Daniel Juster, who has been nicknamed Skippy by his fellow pupils because his buck teeth and voice remind them of the kangaroo. He dies in Ed’s Doughnut Shop, in a suburb of Dublin, while engaged in a doughnut eating contest with his friend Ruprecht, who has never been beaten. The whole episode is told rather in the fashion of a teenage angst song – think Tell Laura I Love Her – rather than as a Shakespearean tragedy. But it is not the doughnuts which kill him, as he does not touch a single doughnut. Indeed, we do not learn the cause of his death for more than 400 pages into the book. The story, till we do learn what kills him, tells of the events leading up to his death.
Daniel is a boarder at Seabrook School, a school nominally (but only nominally) run by an order of Catholic priests known as Paracletes. There are relatively few boarders, as most pupils are now day pupils. Nearby is a girls’ school, called St. Brigid’s, with which Seabrook and its pupils have a fairly close relationship. Daniel shares a study with Ruprecht. Ruprecht is an overweight genius. He has only recently arrived at the school, apparently because both his parents recently died in a kayaking accident in South America, though the reasons for their kayaking seem dubious. Ruprecht is consistently top of the class (by far) and is also seriously interested in particle physics and during the course of the book will carry out several scientific experiments (with mixed results), particularly relating to the M-theory. It is his ambition to work with the leading expert in the field, Professor Yamashi at Stanford University. Daniel seems a relatively normal boy but there are one or two concerns. Firstly, he seems to be taking pills. We do not know why or where he is getting them from. Secondly, he regularly contacts his parents. While his father is encouraging, he seems to be unwilling to have Daniel at home or to visit. Only later do we learn that Daniel’s mother has cancer, though no-one at school knows this. His one success is swimming and he is on the swimming team. We also learn that two of the (male) teachers are sexually attracted to him. Early on in the book, he is looking through Ruprecht’s telescope when he sees a flying saucer. Further investigation reveals it to be a frisbee and it is being thrown by a pupil at St. Brigid’s, Lori, with whom he immediately falls in love. His pursuit of Lori will form a key part of this book.
There are two other key protagonists whose stories we follow. The first we meet is Carl, a day student at Seabrook. Carl is the school bully and, during the book, becomes the school drug dealer. He is not a nice person but we learn that his situation is not helped as his parents are constantly fighting and his father is, apparently, having an affair. His plan is to get Ritalin from the younger kids and sell it to the older ones. Lori is one of the older ones to whom he sells but, as she has no money, her payment is in sexual favours. The other key protagonist is Howard Fallon. Howard, likes several of his fellow teachers, is a Seabrook old boy. He was involved – we learn the details later – in an incident which resulted in one of his schoolmates, now colleague, being injured. Howard had been an investment banker but it had not worked out – details are also given later – and has returned to Seabrook to teach history which he does not enjoy. He is living with Halley, an American, who wants to marry him, at least in part to get Irish citizenship. When a very attractive substitute geography teacher arrives, Howard falls for her. There is another protagonist worth mentioning, though his story is not at the centre of the novel, like the others. This is Greg Costigan, the Acting Principal of Seabrook (the Principal is ill and dying, though not as quickly as Greg would like). Greg is one of those obnoxious bureaucrats who is always giving orders and who sees the world entirely through the prism of the needs of the school, as defined by him. I was reading this novel when Tony Blair’s memoirs were published. One commentator defined Blair as neither a left-wing nor right-wing moderniser, like some of his predecessors, but just a moderniser. Greg is just a moderniser, for its own sake. I was amused to see that Murray may well share my views as, right at the end of the book, Greg admits to having been the singer of a band in his youth. The band’s name was Ugly Rumours.
The first 400 or so pages of this – till we get the repeat of Skippy’s death and the reasons for it – are told in a witty, humorous style, full of schoolboy jokes (fart jokes, for example), stories of school activities, involving drugs, sex (or, at least, discussion about sex), problems with parents and problems with teacher (though, somewhat surprisingly, nothing about sport and only a little bit about music). He uses or parodies schoolgirl romances, teenage angst songs and other academic novels such as Lucky Jim. The plot follows Skippy’s pursuit of Lori, Ruprecht’s scientific experiments, Howard’s love life, Greg’s attempt to modernise and control the school and Carl’s drug and thug activities. There have been hints about the relevance of history, the role of Irish myths and legends and a fair amount about science. But, after Skippy’s death, things change and the book adopts a more serious tone, as we get into matters of life and death, morality, including but not limited to Christian morality, and what we might describe as the dark side beyond. It does work, just about, not least as an attack on Blairist amorality, without mentioning Blair, except for the band name. It is also, of course, an attack on modern Ireland and its move towards the Blair-type amorality and its courting of the rich at the expense of the poor. It does, as I say, just about work, as Murray is a very fine novelist and I shall look forward to seeing where he goes next.
First published in 2009 by Hamish Hamilton