‘Skippy Dies’ by Paul Murray

Skippy Dies, a coming-of-age saga set in an exclusive Catholic boys school in contemporary Ireland, introduces a colourful cast of characters including: ‘Howard the Coward’ a history teacher carrying a burden of guilt from his own school days, Greg the acting-principal desperately trying to pry the school out of the fingers of the Brethren who have been running it for generations, Carl the teenaged sociopath—dealing prescription drugs and becoming increasingly disconnected and delusional, Skippy—hopelessly in love with Lori the beautiful frisby-playing girl from the girls’ school next door, and his roommate Ruprecht—brilliant but obsessed with M-theory and alternate dimensions.

I am always wary of books described a ‘tragi-comic’ as they are invariably depressing and not at all funny. Two thirds of the way through I was convinced that this was the case with Skippy Dies but the last third redeemed it for me. The title conveys inevitability but use of the present tense adds a sense of cyclical motion reinforced by the bold, graphic cover art. I enjoyed the way that the tragedy is clearly signposted and yet things are not what they seem. The usual suspects are not the villains they first appear to be, although nearly everyone seems to be implicated in the circumstances that lead to Skippy’s death. Skippy is the scapegoat and the sacrificial lamb; drifting inexorably towards his own doom.

The humour lies in the brilliant schoolboy characterisation and dialogue that it is reminiscent of ‘The Inbetweeners’ as well as in the nerd-genius philosophy (epitomised in contemporary culture by ‘The Big Bang Theory’). The interaction between the boys is often hilarious and painfully poignant. The storyline, like the physics, is convoluted—comprised of twisted strands and the overlapping dimensions of different character’s perspectives and motivations. Frequently, when the perspective jumps to one of the boys, it shifts to second-person, putting the reader directly in the mind of the boy. Sometimes it is not even clear exactly whose perspective it is—there is a generic sense of lostness that pervades the school, envelopes us and sucks us in to its own consciousness. Skippy himself remains a bit of a mystery; we are allowed to dip into his awareness but what he is actually thinking remains vague. The adult perspectives are a lot clearer.

As Ruprecht explains—the universe is not symmetrical. It doesn’t make sense and yet—somehow by the end of the book—it does. ‘Bethani’ the pop princess (whose name always appears in a ridiculous curly font) is just as integral to the symmetry of the universe as the ancient sacred sites and modern scientific theory. Skippy Dies is well-written, funny and very moving.

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