A tragi-comic novel about a year at a Dublin boarding school explores the aftermath of a fellow student's death.
There's no doubt about what happens in Paul Murray's extraordinary new novel: Skippy dies. He does indeed.
Daniel "Skippy" Juster is a pitiful 14-year old boy at Seabrook College, a well-to-do boarding school in late 1990s Dublin, and one of many rich characters in this very plump (655 pages) and very good novel. There are his schoolmates, including Ruprecht, plump himself, recently orphaned, lost in a world of string theory and parallel universes ("He arrived at Seabrook in January, like a belated and non-returnable Christmas gift"); and Carl, mean-spirited, older, Skippy's nemesis who earns money as a drug dealer after shaking down younger students for their prescription meds. There are the teachers like Father Green ("in his black raiment looking like a single downward stroke of a pen, a peremptory, unforgiving slash through the error-strewn copybook that is the world"); and Howard (The Coward, nicknamed for a tragedy that happened years earlier when he was a student at Seabrook), a history teacher engaged to and living with Halley but suddenly swooned by the new substitute geography teacher, Aurelie ("Howard, you're the only person I know who went directly from losing his virginity to a mid-life crisis.").
And then there's Lori: to Skippy, who clearly is not her social peer, she's the perfect frisbee dream girl from the neighboring girls' school, St. Brigid ("She seems so much brighter than everything around her"), but to Carl she's at first a customer of pills, and then a partner in sex, with disastrous consequences for all.
In this, his second novel, Murray has created a marvelously rich narrative and a beautifully written environment for all these flawed and damaged individuals to exist around the sudden death of young Skippy. All the charms and annoyances of adolescent life have been captured perfectly in classic tragic-comedy tradition. Murray's smart references (Robert Graves' haunting memoir, "Goodbye to All That," and quotes from Kipling: "If any question why we died / Tell them because our fathers lied"), lovely depictions ("Autumn deepens. A fresh chaos of yellow leaves covers the lane up to the school each morning, as if it's been visited overnight by woodland poltergeists") and evocative understanding of this difficult developmental time in our lives ("As the juggernaut of puberty gathers momentum, quirks and oddities and singularities turn from badges of honour to liabilities to be concealed...") create an intelligent and entertaining book that, despite its great length, makes this reader wish that its conclusion had not come around so soon.
Jim Carmin is a reviewer in Portland, Ore.