Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tragicomedy, my favorite

Skippy Dies: A Novel
by Paul Murray

A 672-page novel is an investment, but Skippy Dies by Paul Murray gets so much right that I hardly know where to begin. Okay, I'm going to begin at the beginning...

The novel opens with the death of the eponymous Daniel "Skippy" Juster as the 14-year-old collapses in a donut shop. From there, we are taken back in time to the myriad events that lead up to that moment. And we spend the next 450 pages falling in love with Skippy, hoping for a different outcome. The following 200 pages are the aftermath, and are arguably the most compelling of a very compelling tale.

Now, a book about the death of a young boy sounds like a bummer--and Skippy's death is far from the only tragedy depicted--but as in life, the tragedy is balanced with high comedy. The novel is set at Seabrook College, an upscale private preparatory school in Ireland. This, the institution's 140th year, is a time of transition. The Catholic priests who have been in control for more than a century are beginning to take a back-seat to secular influences. (Yes, contemporary scandals in the Catholic Church are touched on within the plot, which may be objectionable to some readers, but it's not the focus of the story.)

While Skippy is certainly a central character, the novel is an ensemble piece. We meet Skippy's school pals, the older boys that bully them, the teachers and priests that teach them, the girls from the neighboring school, a smattering of parents and significant others. There's a plot. Many of them, in fact; it's an expansive novel and much happens along the way. But this story is character-driven, and that's where Murray excels. His characters are so, so delicious! Ruprecht, the idiosyncratic genius; Mario, the teenage lothario; Howard "The Coward" Fallon, a teacher searching for himself; and an acting principal you'll love to hate. He perfectly captures the sweet innocence of young boys, right along with their monstrous side. Every word, every action rings true. In Murray's novel, protagonists disappoint. Good things do not always happen to good people. But through it all, there is still so much to laugh about.

I could not be less interest in Irish school boys, but Paul Murray has written a universal tale that simply shines. The writing is fantastic, and just gets better and better as the novel unfolds. I loved it from start to finish. Don't let the length deter you from one of this year's finest reads.

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