Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

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Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Life and death in and around an Irish private school, in this all-encompassing brick of a novel, which does resolve into an enjoyable plot.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 672 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241141823

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Life in Seabrook College is a mess. Some of the staff are young enough to remember their own school days there, but many are certainly too old for that. A lot of the boys are victims of ragging and bullying for being too chunky, or too smart - but some are so chunky and smart there's a certain kudos to them. The female of the species is a thing only spied from their own school next door, and only met by selling them ritalin as a weight-control pill, or meeting them at the very rare combined school disco.

You'll notice I didn't start my summary with the plot, and for several chapters I couldn't be sure which of the many plots would be priority here - the tale of the master caught between his girlfriend and the luscious new geography teacher, the drug-dealing friends, or the pair of Skippy and Blowjob, which the blurb defines as the centre of the book. It's to the author's merit that I stuck through a lot of pages to eventually find the blurb was correct. Although my copy comes in one chunk, the finished product will be widely available in three boxed parts, and it's most of the first part I sought more clarity from.

Skippy (real name Daniel Juster) and Blowjob (Ruprecht van Doren) are a mismatched pair. Skippy is trying to survive the school as best he can, Ruprecht is trying to further the world with his physics and astronomy genius. One desperately wants to see a UFO with his telescope, his room-mate uses it to look at a flying saucer of his own - a Frisbee, played with by a lovely girl at the other school, on her own.

Now, I'm never going to love a book that's 672 pages long, but this title made a very good fist of it. It takes in a lot by the end, with Ruprecht as an active observer of the world, coming to find the interplay of the genders akin to the wonkiness of the universe and the eleven dimensions he thinks we live in. There's a host of esoteric experiments and events here (not least the opening chapter, where we see why the book's so called, courtesy of some uneaten donuts). I'll leave it to you to decide if there should have been more, for the wackiness I think would be tiresome stretched out so far, or if you'd prefer more of the more regular fictive sagas of the different love triangles formed here.

As I say I think if anything I sought more cohesion with the plots in the first third, as I personally wanted a clearer symbol of where the book was heading. Also, in none of the three parts was Dublin existent as a character. We only get a couple of lines of dialogue in anything like Oirish phonetic speech, and I think this would have been more enlivened by highlighting its Irish origins and character.

Beyond that I definitely felt happy enough to stay to the end, a set piece of some success, for it is emotional, interesting, and certainly might have been less understated. It matches the preceding hundreds of pages - events and styles that might suggest some unearthly state-of-the-nation novel, but instead offer both a broad scope, and engaging characters joined by unusual connections.

For fans of the larger read, with the patience to learn of the Irish experience of World War One, and physics theories from the outer edge of understanding, alongside their enjoyable young love scenarios, Skippy Dies can be recommended. I can see some though taking the format as an excuse, to put down part one and never actually getting round to going further.

I must thank Penguin's kind people for my review copy.

For more of Dublin we can recommend A Bit of a Scandal by Mary Rose Callaghan and A Bit of a Scandal by Mary Rose Callaghan.

Booklists.jpg Skippy Dies by Paul Murray is in the Man Booker Prize 2010.

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David L said:

Comment on review. Two thirds the way through his review Mr Lloyd expresses the following reservation:

"Also, in none of the three parts was Dublin existent as a character. We only get a couple of lines of dialogue in anything like Oirish phonetic speech, and I think this would have been more enlivened by highlighting its Irish origins and character."

Sorry to inform you Mr Lloyd that we Dubliners don't speak phonetic Oirish and never did in the first place. There is a traditional working class inner city accent, that has always been miles apart from the traditional regional mostly rural accents that Hollywood and the Brits associate with the whole country. This accent is analogous to Cockney and it has spread to the working class suburbs in a process similar to the spread of Estuarine. Middle class suburban Dubliners speak with a neutral accent analogous to RP, but without the strained vowels and stiff upper lip, much influenced especially amongst the young by US TV shows in slang and pronunciation, and oddly closest to the accent of Toronto.

What is most depressing about the above remark is the implication that we Irish are expected to churn out some species of "heritage" Oirishry at least 50 years out of date for the delectation of metropolitans in London or New York who still haven't gotten over their JM Synge. I grew up and went to school at a similar institution within a two mile radius of "Seabrook College" and even though I'm twenty years older than the author I can assure you that this is a wholly authentic portrait of Dublin's middle class suburbs, which has been a long time coming. Middle class suburban Dublin which holds almost one quarter of the population of this country has been poorly represented in Irish literature. "Skippy Dies" is a belated novel in the sense that something like it could have been produced at any time since the early 1980s but those engaged in literature preferred to stick with the traditional terrain of rural Ireland (Friel, Heaney, McGahern) or working class Dublin (Roddy Doyle, Jim Sheridan) or of course the Troubles and Belfast which soaked up a lot of artistic attention.

South Dublin middle class suburbia was ignored, but it was the social avant-garde of Ireland: it was the most affluent, the most connected to the outside world, it had access to British TV before anyone else, was the first to travel frequently outside Ireland, it was the first place where kids had too much money, where kids started using drugs, where kids could steal their mother's valium, where families started to break down, where pornography was available- smuggled in on various school trips abroad, where anomie developed- and here I'm referring to my memories of the 1970s. But the arty crowd either ignored or were ignorant of all this. To them South Dublin was vulgar, boring, materialistic, snobbish and philistine. They should have paid attention cos everything that happened in the whole country during the Celtic Tiger was prefigured here 20 years earlier.

Skippy Dies is a great book and an authentic portrait of a later generation than my own in which I recognize many of the features of my own South Dublin days of the 70s and 80s. If Mr Lloyd is visiting Dublin soon and wants to experience some Oirishry I can point him in the direction of several fake Irish bars in which he can join the rest of the tourists in search of something long since departed.

David L