Hamish Hamilton £18.99 (572pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Skippy Dies, By Paul Murray
Friday 12 February 2010
Paul Murray's novel opens with the title scene. Skippy, a junior boarder at Seabrook College for Boys in Dublin, is having a doughnut-eating contest with his friend Ruprecht when he collapses to the floor and expires, in full view of the other kids at Ed's Doughnut House. The book then rewinds and for two of its three volumes (Skippy Dies comes as a trio of paperbacks) takes us through the preceding term. We see life not just for the boys, but for the teachers, an uneasy mix of secular types and elderly priests vaguely aware that their status at the school and in the world is slowly slipping away.
In fact, Skippy, a rather passive, vacant boy, is only one of a handful of central characters, but he and his death are the nexus through which all the novel's other plot strands twine. These include the struggle for control of the school by the Acting Principal, Greg "The Automator" Costigan, the burgeoning drug business of delinquent pupil Carl, who sells diet pills to the girls of neighbouring St Brigid's, and the scientific experiments of Skippy's room-mate Ruprecht, who is intent on proving the existence of parallel universes.
For much of its length, Skippy Dies is a rollicking school comedy, ticking boxes with a gleeful, authoritative flourish. Foul-mouthed boys seek ingenious ways to stave off boredom and make contact with girls, while eccentric teachers despair of their lives. Chief among these is congenital failure Howard Fallon, who finds his insipid existence upset by the arrival of a gorgeous blonde supply teacher, Aurelie McIntyre.
Howard's clumsy negotiations with her are some of the funniest parts of the book – and this is a novel that had me barking out happy laughter almost as a form of regular punctuation. "'You know, I'm not going to sleep with you,'" Aurelie says at their first meeting, "looking him over with the tip of her tongue tucked into the corner of her mouth, as if she is deciding what to have for dinner." Then, at their second, when Howard ineptly tries to refer to this, "'Now I'm definitely not going to sleep with you.'"
The first volume ends with an eye-opening Halloween Hop that involves many of these themes (drugs, sex) but expels Aurelie from the book. With her, a spark seems to go from it, as Murray knuckles down and starts working his way towards poor Skippy's demise.
There's the only real problem. The book strays near some dark territory (self-harm, domestic violence, bereavement, sexual abuse), but maintains its light, utterly readable, skippy tread throughout. In this it is reminiscent of Zadie Smith's White Teeth – intricate of structure, charming of surface, adept at winding science and history into its design, it can't in the end decide how serious or funny it wants to be.
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
- 2 Before you complain about your GP, this is what you need to know about actually doing the job
- 3 UK's biggest male rape charity Survivors UK has state funding slashed to zero despite 120% rise in men reporting sexual violence and seeking help
- 4 'Don't blame all men for rape' campaign backfires spectacularly
- 5 Charlie Charlie Challenge explained: not a Mexican demon being summoned — it's gravity
Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
Grace of Monaco film panned: Screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman as movie gets US debut
Thrill of the chaste: The truth about Gandhi's sex life
Suicide Squad: leaked footage shows first look at Batmobile chasing Joker through city streets
ASAP Rocky sparks outrage with misogynistic lyrics about Rita Ora in new song 'Better Things'
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
Australian man punched in the face for defending Muslim women from abuse on train
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'