The joy of the Summer exams is that my workload eases and I suddenly have a lot more time to read. It is glorious. I’ve finished five books of varying scale in fewer days, the first of which is SKIPPY DIESby Paul Murray.

Skippy loves the girl in the school next door; said girl may or may not have something to do with the resident psychopath Carl; Skippy’s obese roommate and child-genius Ruprecht is obsessed with the highly abstract and possibly reality bending M-theory; their school – which is not at all a particular and real school in Blackrock – is in the middle of a separation of Church and State; and Skippy has to go and make everything that bit more complicated by dying in the opening lines of the book.

The book is slow get started – after the opening chapter, we jump several months back to get to know the cast, learn where the players of the book are, physically, mentally, and how they arrive at where they then stand in the last gasp of Skippy’s life (there are more people present, we soon realise, than was immediately obvious…) As we follow the slowly expanding cast (including other students, psychos, parents and faculty members), we’re taken on a guided tour of the world that is slowly grinding its inhabitants down, whether they realise it or not.

Undoubtedly, the book casts a scathing eye on the evolution of the Irish school system – the acting principle known to the student populace as The Automator is determined, while the principle is on sick leave, to secularise the Christian Brothers School and drag it kicking and screaming into modernity, all the while anticipating the reactions of the parents (who may or may not approve) and the Brothers themselves (who certainly won’t). Superficially, he certainly seems to be on the right track, but as his motivations become clear – particularly in dealing with a crisis – we get a careful reminder that as much damage as has been done by the clergy in Ireland, they are not the only responsible parties…

Which is not to say that the Brothers themselves are let off the hook – instead, the entire institution is held culpable, both in generating ruin and disassociating itself from the people it’s meant to be educating. Student welfare is only considered when the risk of a lawsuit emerges; when trouble starts, scapegoats are selected almost at random… All of which leads up to a terrible revelation. Amid this building carnage stands the man-child that is Howard the Coward, the poetry of Robert Graves and the impact of history, both literal and metaphorical. Alas that saying anything would give too much away…

As grim as the plots involving the adulthood may be, the story immediately revolving around Skippy and his gang of 14 year old nerds and wannabes is sweet, whimsical, fantastical and honest. They act their age, with all of the bluster, naivete, idiocy and charm that goes with with it – while Skippy is a relatively passive character, his classmates are ever-present to be loud and foolish, with all the inadvertent splendour their advice to a lovesick Skippy can provide, before dashing off on an adventure into mystery. It’s an important counter-balance: Skippy is passive and withdrawn with good reason, but the reveal is slow by necessity, Ruprecht et al setting out to replicate an experiment-gone-right gives a manic energy and wonder to the story, a wonder that may very well prove vital in the denouement…

Thankfully, the book does not build up to Skippy’s death only to end – instead it picks up the pieces at looks at the consequences of the event. Was it murder? Suicide? An unforeseen side effect of Ruprecht’s work on M-Theory? Or something else entirely? While the question is answered, the book does not rest upon the reveal and instead concerns itself with the damage it causes. It creates a shift, both in plot and tone, which is by varying measures tragic, vicious, grim and bittersweet, but none of these things are misplaced. Characters lives are irrevocably changed and we see these results, few of which are positive. In thinking on the ending, it’s both hilarious and terrible that some ends are mentioned merely in passing, while one terrible misfortune stands tall and obvious. As cruel as it might seem, I am glad that Murray had the courage of his convictions to end the book the way he did (as much as I hoped he wouldn’t).

Overall, it’s surprisingly decent, if slow early on. It is also a remarkably accurate study of schools, dashed expectations, rationalisation and being a fourteen year old boy. It also made me very glad I’m well out of secondary school, weird occasional dreams and fears of developing amnesia aside. The best praise I can give it is that I ordered Murray’s first book, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, on the strength of the work here. I hope, and expect, that he will not disappoint.

Advertisements