Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Rating: 3 & ½ Stars

Posh boarding school, English-speaking students and their capers, adolescent crushes – No, this isn’t Hogwarts, but there’s a certain wizardry in the writing, nevertheless. The setting for the story is a very prestigious school in Ireland – ‘Seabrook College for Boys’.  One thing should be made clear at the outset. In Paul Murray’s arresting book, ‘Skippy’ is not a cherished household pet; he is the main character who dies in the very first chapter. 

Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster seems to be an unlikely figure to be the leading character in a story, let alone its tragic center. He is a nondescript boy who is hooked to video games, and madly in love with Lori, a girl from St. Brigid’s School, which is in tantalizingly close vicinity to Seabrook. Fairly popular with his peers, not entirely unloved by his parents, nor completely ignored by his teachers, he seems a normal teen. What causes his premature death? That forms the crux of the story.

Skippy is certainly not lacking friends. One of them is his room-mate, the prodigiously brainy Ruprecht Van Doren, gifted in academics and girth.  Dennis, Mario, and Geoff form the rest of his posse. All of them are more or less typical fourteen-year old boys, with the predictable interests of that age-group. When some of these kids open their mouth, it’s like the sluice gates of Dublin’s sewers have broken wide open. However, they lend humor to a story that badly needs it.

Skippy has a rival in love - crazy-vicious Carl, who lives his life in a haze of drugs, over-exposure to internet porn, and his own scalding rage. The object of his affections is the same as Skippy’s – the lovely Lori. Ah, the sweet innocence of drug-addled teenagers in the throes of their first passion! 

The kids indulge in various behaviors ranging from disturbing to dangerous, and generally have all the charm and likeability of pupating larvae. The one thing they do have in common is a shocking vulnerability, none more so than the forlorn Skippy who has no one to whom he can articulate his inner misery.

Reading this book is an effective purge for all nostalgia for teen hood. But ultimately, this is not a satire of adolescence, but a harsh indictment of the ‘grown-ups’ to whom these children are nothing more than means to various ends. The parents, in general, are swept aside as well-intentioned, but clueless or self-absorbed, or both. Let's not forget the teachers: Howard Fallon, who bobs along the current of life like so much ineffectual flotsam; Greg Costigan, the indefatigable juggernaut of ambition who is the Acting Principal; and, the various other priests and lay members who make up the rest of the teaching staff.

‘Skippy Dies’ is a mixed bag, flawed but not to be easily dismissed. Though intermittently funny and consistently clever, it’s too unsettling to be labeled as humor. In the end, there’s nothing that amusing about these sad teens and pathetic adults.

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