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Wednesday, 05 October 2011 13:33

Skippy Dies: The anguish of being young

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Kind Hearts, this is an astonishing book. Frankly, I never would have read this one, if I had not blundered on a comment by Donna Tartt (my pick for our greatest living Southern writer). Recently, when a book store owner in Greenwood, Mississippi asked her if she had a favorite book, Donna immediately announced that Skippy Dies was definitely the “book of the year.” That is good enough for me.  I immediately launched an internet search and scored a used paperback copy. I advise you to do the same.

The setting of Skippy Dies is Seabrook College, the home of some 400 male students (average age is 14) in Dublin, Ireland. Operated by the Catholic church, the college exudes tradition and moral rectitude — the kind of atmosphere that is highly valued by upwardly mobile, middle-class parents who are eager to pass on the irksome job of raising sons to a Seabrook’s motley crew of teachers who run the gamut from merely incompetent to disturbingly neurotic.

It is probably evasive to say that the students are just average 14-year-olds, so to be more specific, they are: lonely, horny, angry, devious, naive and confused. Often, they can embody contradictory emotions ... such as fragile egos and a surprising penchant for cruelty and violence.

Author Paul Murray gets his novel off to a provocative start by killing his protagonist, Skippy (Danny Juster) on the first page. Skippy expires while his roommate, Ruprucht Van Doren, is gorging himself on doughnuts (Ruprucht holds the record for the greatest number of doughnuts consumed at a single sitting). The two boys are in the college hangout, Ed’s Doughnut Shop, where a large number of students watch Skippy twitch and convulse as he struggles to write a farewell message to his girlfriend, Lori. (He is using a puddle of syrup on the floor and slowly writes “Tell Lori.....” and then  dies). 

The rest of this hefty novel consists of a 600-page flashback that relates how poor Skippy came to be lying on the floor surrounded by soggy doughnuts and blobs of blueberry syrup.

Seabrook College easily qualifies as a microcosm of the world. The student body is racially diverse, consisting of significant numbers of Afro-Americans, Irish, Japanese, Italian, French and Chinese students who share a common dilemma. They are all homesick. In addition, they have all brought their problems and talents to Seabrook. Skippy swims, but is asthmatic; Ruprucht is the school genius who holds court in his own computer lab in the basement.

Although many excel at rugby or music, the bond that binds them is not scholastic. For most of them, it is the shameful knowledge that they have been abandoned at Seabrook like unclaimed luggage. Their parents have paid the excessive tuition in the belief that if their sons are safe and well-fed, the parents can get on with their social life and their careers without feeling guilty about the fact that they rarely visit the school and are often reluctant to have their sons home for the holidays.

Drugs are everywhere, thanks to a steady supply provided by two students, Carl and Barrie (who are locals who do not live in the college dorms), the majority of the students are under the influence of either diet pills, pot, Ritalin or ecstasy, and yes, due to the existence of an all-girl school nearby (Saint Bridget’s), there are opportunities for chaperoned dances. (One of the most bizarre and comical episodes in this novel occurs at the Halloween Dance where a combination of rap music, drugs, a power failure and a lack of supervision — where are the chaperones? — produces a kind of masquerade/pubescent orgy).

Most of the faculty and administration at Seabrook are asleep at the wheel. The acting principal, Greg Costigan (known as the Automator to the students), is a pompous, arrogant windbag who is totally inept and spends most of his time writing florid speeches about the school’s traditions and terrorizing the demoralized faculty. Father Green, the French teacher, is an ancient pedophile (the students call him Pere Vert) works diligently with the Dublin poor ... possibly as pertinence for a shameful past in Africa. The history teacher, known as Howard the Coward (due to a mysterious incident when he was a Seabrook student himself), struggles to deal with his own infidelity and his determination to be a competent teacher. Father Slattery, the English teacher, is slowly losing his struggle with age and memory and teaches a few of Robert Frost’s poems over and over. Tom Roche has been crippled by an accident (the same accident that made poor Howard ... the Coward!) and nurses a secret that is destroying him. In summary, these tortured, comical, tragic and sometimes gifted educators are trapped within the confines of Seabrook in much the same manner as their students. Some of them yearn to escape but lack the courage to leave.

Skippy Dies manages to run the gamut from comical farce to a kind of dark medication on anguish of being young and alone. Skippy Dies is by turns comical, ribald and heartbreaking. Some of the most hilarious passages involve the students’ obsession with sex ....like Dennis who thinks that Frost’s poem, “The Road not Taken” is about anal sex. As each tragi-comic episode unfolds, poor inept Skippy dreams that his parents (who never visit) will take him home. He views the world around him with anxiety and searches for a safe haven. When he blunders into a relationship with the jaded and self-centered Lori from Saint Bridgets, he quickly becomes a pawn manipulated by a shallow and morally corrupt girl. Stalked by Carl (Lori’s true love), haunted by vague memories of sexual abuse, terrified by Father Green, badgered by his swimming coach and his father who urges him to “be all he can be” in an impending swimming meet, poor Skippy desperately searches for an escape ... which are provided by the pills under his pillow.

For a while, it appears that fat Ruprucht, Skippy’s room-mate, has the answer to all of the dreams and hopes of his fellow students. In his basement lab Ruprucht works tirelessly, constructing marvelous machines that will provide an access to “other dimensions” (Ruprucht’s research has lead him to believe that there are eleven). Under the hopeful eyes of his fellow students, this pudgy wizard promises them paradise in another dimension. As the experiments become more bizarre, finally requiring that Rupert relocate their “experiment” to the laundry room of Saint Bridgets, the students’ faith in Ruprucht begins to falter. Is he a fraud? If so, what will they do? If he is rejected, what will become of Ruprucht?

It is easy to see why Donna Tartt loves Skippy Dies since her own novel, The Secret Society, concerns a private school and the anguished lives of its students. Both novels demonstrate a heartfelt insight into the anguish of being young.

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. Faber and Faber, 2010. 661 pages

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