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Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Man Booker long list - a review of Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Seabrook College is one of Ireland's premier private schools for boys, and Skippy Dies is the tragi-comic story of several months in the long but fast changing life of the place. The two central characters are the lonely and largely unnoticed Daniel Juster (a.k.a. Skippy, on account of his resemblance to the well known kangeroo of the same name) and his fellow student, the corpulent scientific genius-in-the-making and champion doughnut-eater, Ruprecht Van Doren (a.k.a. Van Blowjob, a.k.a. Van Boner, on account of his being fourteen years old and all his classmates think endlessly and largely fruitlessly of sex). While Skippy stumbles along - way out of his league - in pursuit of haut-bourgeois frisbee-playing man-eater-in-training Lori Wakeham from neighbouring St Brigid's school for girls, Ruprecht refines his machine that will allow him to travel down the tiny strings that link together the 11 dimensions of the universe from Seabrook to some parallel world, and thereby win himself a Nobel prize.

Interwoven with these stories are the lives of other members of this community: disillusioned and directionless Howard, coward and history teacher; psychotic drug-dealing Carl, for whom an early wasteland grave or lifelong encarceration seem equally likely outcomes; Gregory Costigan, Acting Principal, determined to quietly ditch the school's Christian ethos in favour of modern business methods, all the while celebrating the very marketable 140th anniversary.

But while the story evolves the comedy of these characters dreams, it also reveals black tragedy and horror: cancer, sexual abuse, addiction, blackmail, death. It's a great achievement of Paul Murray's that he can make these hopeless and often horrible people so compelling.

Skippy Dies is a tale of huge misunderstanding and a little discovery, of emotional dishonesty and incompetence, of people trying anything - alcohol, the White Goddess, the faeries, drugs, M-theory, sex - to make sense of a life of which they clearly have a slender understanding and less control.

The death of Skippy is the least surprising element of the book because not only is it announced in the title, but also it starts on page 1 and is completed by page 5. Nevertheless, how Skippy meets his tragic end and how others deal with it is the engine that drives the narrative through this 660-page novel. Paul Murray manages to be both moving and laugh-out-loud funny. His portrayal of these sex-obsessed adolescents (and several of the adults), who understand little about themselves or the world around them, is brilliant. Skippy Dies is a long book, the longest on this year's Man Booker long list, but for me the language is always spot on, the narrative stays brilliantly in full sail, and the characters remain vivid and engaging whatever horror Paul Murray calls up for them.

Incidentally, and following on from the last post, Neil Jordan is to make a film adaptation of the book. Who would you cast in the leading roles?

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