is a work of genius. Where else could you combine a coming-of-age tale with string theory, ancient Celtic mythology with fart humor, consideration of cultural forgetfulness with Druid drug dealers (say that five times fast), a look at adulthood as a continuation of adolescence with better tools but less hope, substance abuse of sundry sorts, from doughnuts to diet pills, from weed to heroin and cocaine, from sexual predation to the hormonal cravings of early adolescence to self-cutting? It may sound like too much but it all hangs together in its own entire and discrete dimension. Did I say that I laughed out loud many, many times? Did I say that I loved, loved, loved this book?
Seabrook College, serving as our societal microcosm, is a six-year school in more-or-less contemporary Ireland, before larcenous corporate entities got all their wishes and left Ireland with an empty pot and no gold at all. Daniel “Skippy” Juster, who does indeed die in an opening scene, is a charming 14-year old with a hankering for a sweet thing named Lori. That is short for Lorelie, so break out your Vah-gner. Howard “The Coward” Fallon, a young teacher in a bad relationship, pines for an alluring substitute named Aurelie, which, I guess, makes her a golden
variation on the theme. Can Skippy and/or Howard keep from being dashed on the rocks? The imagery of classical sirens resounds throughout the novel.
Ruprecht is Skippy’s genius, overweight roommate. He is very interested in string theory, particularly the notion of a possible eleventh dimension (don’t ask) and concocts experiments to test out his theories. That loud noise you hear might be Ruprecht attempting to transport matter into an alternate dimension. He has tales to tell about his parents, supposedly lost while kayaking in the Amazon. He plays the French Horn as well, and may be a bit too
wedded to his analyses.
Carl is a troubled Columbine candidate, with a toxic home life and a host of friends one would definitely call the wrong sort. He deals drugs to students, and may sample the product a bit too much. He was obsessed with Lori before Skippy came along. Uh oh.
There is also a large cast of wise-cracking boys (mostly) who will definitely tickle your funny bone with their very witty, pun-soaked and profane banter, and creative nicknames for each other and adults as well. (My personal faves were “Pere Vert” for Father Green on the adult side and Kevin “What’s” Wong for student entries) Their conversations and their concerns make them very real, even if we do not spend a lot of time with most of them. For all you boys out there, Skippy
offers plenty of scatological humor, although, being a very-over-age adolescent, there can never be quite enough for me. :-) Murray has a keen ear for the rhythm, tone and degrees of snarkiness these kids exude, leading one to think that either he recalls extremely well his time at the actual school on which Seabrook is based, or part of him never graduated.
The story opens with Skippy’s demise, then works up to that event from the past. Skippy has a lot to deal with. His swim coach is after him to shape up, for, among other reasons, Skippy is a natural in the pool. He is slack-jawed at the sight of Lori and struggles to establish a relationship with her, all the while being tormented by his romantic rival, the ominous, thuggish and maybe addled Carl. Add to that a mother dying of cancer and a father who can spare him no attention. Have a nice life. Oh, sorry. Once up to Skippy’s passing, the story continues, looking at how both teens and adults cope.
I was blown away by this book. I loved the characters, the story was compelling and the payload was considerable. I hated to put the thing down, or in this case, for the battery to run out, as I was reading it on a Nook. There is quite a bit of paralleling here about various sorts of dimensions that exist in close proximity to each other spatially or chronologically. There is a consideration of the Irish role in World War I and the subsequent national attitude about that, as well as how events in one’s personal past can define history on an individual basis, even if they might be somewhat misremembered, whether by design or not. Failure and redemption coexist nicely here. Growth and stasis as well. There is a look into string theory, which is a pretty neat trick, ancient religions and alternate dimensions occupy close turf as well.
A school filled with rambunctious teenaged-boys would be incomplete without the predictable evil principal. He remains a cardboard figure here, acting as the designated uber-schmuck to all around him. Think Dean Wormer from Animal House
. He also personifies, beyond his cartoonish darkness, a more meaningful bleakness, voicing certain beliefs that most reasonable people would find troubling. There is also a very Snape-like priest, with a dark secret of his own, wandering the halls.
You will love Skippy and his bright-light roommate Ruprecht. Murray even gives us reasons to care about some of the unpleasant and damaged people who appear. You will laugh and you will cry. And you will never be able to think of Frost’s The Road Not Taken
the same way again. With Skippy Dies
Murray has proven, for any who might doubt it, that there is plenty of room for uproarious laughter in a work of great literature. Skippy Dies? I don’t think so. Skippy will live forever.
PS - This is the review I wish
I had written - http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/05/books/review/Kois-t.html
Here is another
I enjoyed the following interview with Murray