It begins with Howard Fallon's history class, where he's coaxing his students to name the main key players of WWI--"Come on, now. The main protagonists. Just the main ones. Anybody?" He ignores Ruprecht Van Doren's upstretched hand--he always has the answer; passes over Daniel "Skippy" Juster, who stares into space as if drugged; and asks Mario, who's playing with his cell phone.
" 'Uh...." Mario prevaricates. 'Well, Italy....'
'Italy was in charge of the catering,' Niall Henaghan suggests.
'Hey,' Mario warns.
'Sir, Mario calls his wang Il Duce.'
Finally, class is over, and Howard is left to wonder, as always, if anyone has heard a thing he's said; "he can practically see his words crumpled up on the floor."
Several of Murray's leitmotifs are deftly presented here: student boredom, adolescent mockery, teacher despair and hormones. The boys are second-year students at elite Seabrook College, a historic Catholic boys' school in Dublin, and Skippy and his friends--Dennis, Niall, Mario, Ruprecht and Geoff--are boarders at Seabrook, unlucky souls who have to live in the Tower. "Any Harry Potter–type fantasies tend to get squashed pretty quickly: life in the Tower, an ancient building composed mostly of draughts, is a deeply unmagical experience." But the boarders do have one advantage: their windows look down on the yard of St Brigid's girls' school (and the terrifying Ghost Nun, who roams the grounds after dark wielding a crucifix, or pinking shears).
Skippy is the hub around whom the other boys revolve--he's smart, he's on the swim team and he's kind. He tends to get lost in his video game and the pills he sometimes takes--just to make things normal--enhance his daydreaming tendencies. He's an innocent, and even Father Green, who sees sin everywhere, sees a fragility in him, an unworldliness.
Ruprecht is the resident genius. For him, "the world is a compendium of fascinating facts just waiting to be discovered, and a difficult maths problem is like sinking into a nice warm bath." He conducts experiments in the basement (time machines, X-ray glasses) and pursues his Holy Grail--the secret of the origins of the universe.
Dennis is the arch-cynic, whose very dreams are sarcastic. He has created a Nervous Breakdown Leaderboard. His two top contenders are Brother Jonas, who is from Africa and has never quite caught onto how things work at Seabrook, and Father Laughton, whose desire to instill a love of classical music in the hearts of his students, combined with a mild approach to discipline, make him a prime candidate for the win. And then there's Mario, son of a diplomat in the Italian embassy, who is obsessed with sex; they call him the David Beckham of masturbating.
The faculty at Seabrook are as diverse as the kids. Howard Fallon, who graduated 10 years ago from Seabrook, is known as Howard the Coward to the students. He has come back to Seabrook after a disastrous time in brokerage, and feels like nothing has changed from his student days, but of course, it has. The Holy Paraclete Fathers are dying out, and when the school principal, Father Desmond Furlong, fell ill, it was a layman--economics teacher Gregory Costigan--who took over. Costigan, disdained by all, is called the Automator by the students and staff, and thinks his mission is to bring Seabrook into the 21st century, to create a strong brand identity. The Paracletes are "outmoded technology," and having them around makes the parents anxious in the new age of churchly scandal.
Howard, stuck in a relationship he calls "a grey tapestry of okayness," falls for Miss McIntyre--Aurelie--the sub for an ailing geography teacher. She's blonde, stacked and has blue eyes "custom-made for sparkling mockingly." Never have lava, ordnance maps and global warming been so fascinating.
Father Jerome Green ("Père Vert") is the French teacher, the school's most terrifying personage "in his black raiment looking like a single downward stroke of a pen, a peremptory unforgiving slash through the error-strewn copybook that is the world." Father Green carries a terrible guilt and a concomitant ecstasy within himself, which fuels his determination to root out sin.
The resident evil comes in the form of Barry and Carl, Seabrook boys who strong-arm students into giving up their Ritalin or stealing their parents' meds--they sell these as diet pills to the St Brigid's girls. Carl is truly scary--he's drugged, he cuts himself, he's violent, and he's addicted to porn. He lusts after Lori, who will trade kisses and gropes for pills. Lori is also the mysterious Venus that Skippy pines for. One afternoon in his room, looking through Ruprecht's telescope, he sees "an almost impossible beauty. Dancing back and forth, glittering like a runaway star through the dowdy greys of autumn..." It's a St Brigid's girl, playing Frisbee. Skippy is entranced.
Skippy becomes one with Ruprecht's telescope, and he is either euphorically happy or in despair, depending on sightings of Frisbee Girl, whose name he still doesn't know. The big question: Will she be at the annual Hallowe'en Hop? His passion gives him something he hasn't had for sometime--happiness, even if mixed with misery. He's unhappy on the swim team and wants to beg off, and the Game, which he plays with his father and involves the absence of his mother, is beginning to fray.
While Skippy moons over Lori, Ruprecht moons over a new theory, the M-theory. "Why can't we fall in love with a theory? Is it a person we fall in love with, or the idea of a person? So yes, Ruprecht has fallen in love." Howard also wants meaning, and longs for love; he's been reading Robert Graves, at Aurelie's suggestion. He wants to be daring, and finds his opportunity by volunteering to chaperone the Hallowe'en Dance with Aurelie. So all roads converge at the Hop.
At the dance, Skippy discovers the name of Frisbee Girl and meets her. The punch gets spiked, resulting in a mess of deafening music, discarded costumes, bare flesh and mass vomiting. The Automator thinks, in a bizarrely convoluted way, that Skippy is involved, so Skippy is sent to Father Foley for counseling. As he speaks of the dangers of impure acts, he reminds Skippy that "God, in his wisdom, has supplied us with the means to avoid these deadly traps of the spirit, in the form of the wonderful gift of sport.... [The Romans] wouldn't have known about rugby, but I think we can assume that if the sport had been invented then, they would have been playing it night and day. It's amazing how many of life's problems simply disappear after a rousing game of rugby."
The story unwinds slowly and intriguingly, with layers, backtracks and subtle asides--the casual drug use, the feelings of wretchedness and helplessness ("Back at school, the bad feeling grows and grows. The pills call to you from under the pillow. Speeding out of control, Skip? The brakes are right here!"), the cruelty and machinations of the girls, the friendship and banter of the boys. Ruprecht remarks that the universe is asymmetrical: toast lands butter side down. The other boys just want to know if in another universe girls would be more symmetrical. And Dennis, true to form, points out that Skippy would still be a loser in a parallel universe; they all would--they see the powerlessness of the teenage years, and they suspect it may presage adulthood.
So a boy is dead, and there is a cover-up brewing, but not the cover-up one expects. Friendships start to fray without the glue that was Skippy. Anomie spreads throughout the school, but Costigan sets his sights on the annual Seabrook Christmas concert, which he sees as an opportunity to put the school back on the map of prominence. He wants to make sure the concert is Quality. He hears Ruprecht's quartet (the Van Doren Quartet) practicing, and asks Father Laughton what they are playing. "Pachelbel's Canon in D," Father Laughton says, adding, after a moment of internal debate, "You might recognize it from the current advertisement for the Citroën Osprey." The Automator nods. "Quality."
Paul Murray knows the lives of adolescents, where the highs and lows are just as complicated as in adult lives--maybe more so, because they have no direction from parents or priests or teachers. So the boys slog through their days, making what sense of the world they can, usually through a hormonal haze, as when Dennis decides a Robert Frost poem is about anal sex:
"Well, once you see it, it's pretty obvious. Just look at what he says. He's in a wood, right? He sees two roads in front of him. He takes the one less travelled. What else could it be about?"
Murray has crafted a rich potpourri of string theory, the Irish in WWI, Robert Graves, fart jokes, Kipling, spiritualism, teenage psyches, cigarettes, drugs, sex and Ireland in the 2000s--mochaccino sippers in love with high tech and out of love with the Church. He throws in a few bits of typographical whimsy and a lot of laugh-out-loud passages. But he does have a serious agenda: What is sin? What is the price of maintaining an institution? How do young people navigate the world? Is there redemption for an evil life? His dazzling prose creates a dark backdrop for these questions, a setting of autumnal deadness and futility: "It's the end of the school day; they are walking down the laneway to the Doughnut House. In the dusk the world appears pale and exhausted, like a vampire's been drinking from its veins: the thin pink filament of the just-come-on doughnut sign, the white streetlights like dowdy cotton bolls against the grey clouds, the soft hand-like leaves of the trees with the colours leeched away to match the asphalt."
There is much heartbreak in Skippy Dies--real heartbreak, not merely what adults think children experience, and it informs the students' feelings of being on the brink of discovery, but of what? We careen from uncontrollable laughter at scatological conversations between the boys to the sadness of Howard's reason for being called Coward, to anger at the school's hypocrisy and lies, to the ineffable sorrow of Skippy's despair. The video game Skippy was immersed in is called "Hopeland," he'd been playing it for almost a year, and yet hope abandoned him. Ruprecht "does not know how he ever believed this universe could be a symphony played on superstrings, when it sounds like shit, played on shit." And yet, compassion and mercy come from unexpected places.
Paul Murray has written an inventive, haunting, brilliant novel that is laced with broad humor and subtle wit. He confronts the "grinding emptiness" at the heart of the adult world, and mourns for the boys being pushed into that world without a moral compass. Skippy Dies has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year; if we had to bet, we'd say Murray's novel would be the odds-on favorite.--Marilyn Dahl