Monday, April 19, 2010

'Skippy Dies' by Paul Murray

There was a time when I baulked at the sight of the larger novel. It's easy to become fixated with how many pages there are in a book, and how many you still have to go, particularly when the novel feels more worthy than engaging. I schlepped slowly through Haruki Murakami's 600-odd page The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles last year, assuring myself that it would be worth finishing, and that if I could even cover as much as twenty pages in a day then I would have the thing finished within a month.
Skippy Dies, the second novel by Irish author Paul Murray, did not feel that way. It's over 660 pages long, but during a few quiet days in Donegal I raced through it, devoting sittings of up to four hours at a time to it.
It's a remarkable book, set in the fictional Seabrook College - a place that bears more than a passing resemblance to Dublin's Blackrock College. The protagonist,14 year-old Daniel 'Skippy' Juster dies in a doughnut shop on the first page. The book thereafter devotes two-thirds of itself to the build-up to Skippy's death and the factors that led to it. Myriad other characters swarm comfortably about the place, and topics like fidelity, bravery, divorce, drug use, child abuse, religion and ambition abound whilst, astonishingly, never weighing too heavily on the reader. Murray manages to keep a lightness and humour to matters by employing more than a touch of fantasy in his writing. The conversations between the teenage boy characters, for example, read almost like an X-rated version of Saved By The Bell. But in a good way.
What this means is that, though Murray has all manner of important things to say about Irish society and about teenagers today, he manages to do so without ever becoming hectoring or shrill. Skippy Dies is an epic, in the very best sense of the word, and is well worth checking out.


Kieran said...

I commented on Tenderwire a while back, and have been meaning to give an opinion here as well. I was really looking forward to this, based on reviews, and did enjoy it, but just not as much as I'd hoped. The dialogue was hilarious in places, and Murray nicely skewers a very particular world, but I couldn't help feeling that with the help of a good editor he could have knocked about 1/3 off this when he was turning it into one book. The writing was just a bit too self-indulgent in places, which was a shame as when it was pared back a bit it really did make me laugh out loud.

Andrew said...

I wouldn't go so far as to say he could/should have knocked a third off, but I know what you mean. I suppose I didn't mind the more superfluous bits of the story because they were still so enjoyable to read.
I was a little surprised to see this one make the Booker longlist recently, but absolutely delighted for Paul Murray. I picked up his first book, 'An Evening of Long Goodbyes' a few weeks ago, so I'll put up a review of that when I've read it.

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