Skippy Dies by Paul Murray has been on my list since way back in 2011, when it was eliminated from the first round of the Tournament of Books, resulting in much wailing and gnashing of teeth from TOB followers who loved the book. And ever since, it seems to come up regularly in TOB comments as a book that should’ve done better. This year, a group of TOB fans on Goodreads is putting together a tournament of past favorites that didn’t win, which motivated me to finally read it.
The novel follows the misadventures of the students and teachers at a Dublin boys’ school. Right from the start (from the title, even), you know it’s going to be a dark story, as a student dies during a donut-eating contest. The student, 14-year-old Daniel “Skippy” Juster is one of the school’s handful of boarding students, and the cause of his death is unclear.
About half of the book is a flashback into the weeks leading up to Skippy’s death, with the second half focusing on the aftermath. We learn that his mom is sick, that he wants to quit the swim team, that he has a crush on a local girl (who maybe? reciprocates), that the girl (Lori) is seeing a drug dealer, and more. All of this is presented with a comic tone, although it’s clear that some of what’s going on is quite serious. For the most part, Murray manages to convey the seriousness of what is happening at the school without the book feeling dark and without seeming to trivialize what’s happening. This is a very delicate balance, and I suspect others will feel differently about how well Murray manages it. (For my part, I found some of the racist incidents involving Asian characters far more upsetting than I might have 10 years ago, even though I think, in context, it’s clear that the racists are terrible guys. The Asian characters aren’t given enough humanizing moments to offset the dehumanization inflicted on them.)
What I liked about the book is how it brought together all the contradictions of the early teen years. These kids are acting like kids a lot of the time (one group is trying to build a time machine, with different group members treating the process with differing degrees of seriousness), but they’re also starting to step into more adult activities, usually without the ability to handle them. At the same time, it shows how the adults are mired in their own confusion, which affects how well (and how badly) they take care of the kids. There are also some really beautiful passages about life and destiny and connection. Like this from Lori, Skippy’s crush, musing on a statement she learned in French class — There is another world, but it is in this one:
It’s about how — she could feel herself going red, she squeezed her eyes tight shut, trying to remember what Mr Scott had told them — like, how people are always going somewhere? Like everybody’s always trying to be not where they are? Like they want to be in Stanford, or in Tuscany, or in Heaven, or in a bigger house on a fancier street? Or they want to be different, like thinner or smarter or richer or with cooler friend (or dead, she did not say). They’re so busy trying to find their way somewhere else they don’t see the world they’re actually in. So this guy’s saying, instead of searching for ways out of our lives, what we should be searching for are ways in.
What I didn’t like was how long the book is. I’m not entirely sure it earned its 660 pages. It read pretty quickly and easily, so it didn’t feel like a slog, but there were characters I never cared about much and could have done without. It was just a little too much, and a little trimming might have made the good parts shine even more.