By Gwendolyn Dawson
As might be guessed from its title, one of the primary characters (14-year-old Skippy) dies within this novel’s first few pages. After that unexpected death, which interrupts a doughnut-eating contest between roommates, the narrative jumps backwards in time to cover the events leading up to that fateful event. Along the way, Skippy Dies touches on every imaginable component of adolescent life in the context of a group of young students at Seabrook, a prestigious, all-male Catholic preparatory school located in contemporary Dublin, Ireland. Drugs, alcohol, cliques, girls, sports, video games and cell phones, depression and existential angst, friends and enemies, and even attempted travel through time and space all play a part in this sprawling, messy narrative.
In telling this complex story, Murray skillfully shifts between numerous points of view, including that of both students and teachers, to create a multi-dimensional world in all its disarray. Coming it at well over 600 pages, Skippy Dies is too often weighed down by long expositions — including detailed descriptions of the concepts of m-theory physics and the origins of Irish sidhe (ancient burial mounds) — and tedious descriptions of the boys’ video game and role playing sessions. Perhaps Murray intends for these elements to illustrate the non-linear, rambling adolescent mind, but their effect is to slow down the narrative, which otherwise moves along at a brisk, entertaining clip.
Murray has a great talent for concise and evocative character descriptions like this one of Father Green, one of the most senior teachers at Seabrook: “Rail-thin, a head taller than the tallest of the boys, on his best days the priest looks like the end of the world; his presence itself is like smoldering kindling, or knuckles cracking over and over.” Skippy Dies is liberally sprinkled with such imaginative prose without being overburdened with flourishes. Similarly, in telling the stories of the Seabrook boys and their teachers, Murray masterfully balances the narrative in the space between seriousness and humor, repulsiveness and charm, and despair and hope. Overall, Skippy Dies is an insightful and engaging, if over-long, examination of the adolescent condition.
Skippy Dies is published in the United States by Faber & Faber.
Gwendolyn Dawson is the founder of Literary License.