Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

The title says it all....

Well, not really, but you've got to love an author who puts the main event right there on the cover. It's as though Paul Murray just wants to be clear, right up front, that this is what is going to happen. It won't be the end of the story, but it will be a very important factor, and we might as well just get it out there on the table from the outset.

This book is much longer than I realized, being printed on extremely thin paper, and set in very small print. My copy is 660 pages. In this respect it is physically and thematically similar: the story doesn't seem as though it is going to touch on quite so many truths, from quite so many different angles.

To wit: Seabrook is a traditional Irish Catholic boys' school, running full frontal into the 21st century. There is a varied cast of characters: a disappointed futures-trader-turned-history teacher, a boy genius, an altruistic priest, a beautiful girl, a thug, an ambitious administrator, a swimming coach, and many others, all, it seems, with secrets. And of course there's Skippy, who has at least two gigantic secrets.

The story takes place over the course of an academic year. People fall in love, people cheat, restrain themselves, plan clandestine scientific explorations, sneak into the neighboring girls' school, deal and take drugs - the usual school stuff. There is complicated science, and crass pornography, and 19th century poetry. And somehow it all ties in, connects, reflects endlessly.

The most amazing thing about this book is how deeply the reader falls into the lives of the characters. There is a metaphorical hall of mirrors at Seabrook, with each succeeding generation experiencing the same epiphanies, and false starts. They're coming at life from from different angles, but somehow it's all  the same. They're trapped in that hall, inevitably bumping into their distorted reflections, and mistaking them for reality. The themes of impotence, regret and futility are wound around one another, always present but never obvious. Most of the inhabitants of Seabrook are adolecents, and they have that terrible and misguided sense that what is happening at any one moment is the truth.

Did I mention that this book is also really funny? It is. And despite the fact that it took me way longer than I had imagined to get to the last page, I was kind of heartbroken at having to finish. The word I keep thinking of is engaging; the characters are just barely eccentric, the dialogue is always spot-on and hilarious, the many little subplots and interstices and wild imaginings hold your attention just perfectly.One of my very favorite books of the year, thus far.

You can hear all about Paul Murray's life, writing and literary tastes in the Powell's interview.

Jess Walter reviews Paul Murray. What's (slightly) better than reading a great book? Reading another's author's take on it.

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