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  1. Skippy Dies is not a tale about a moribund kangaroo as I feared before I picked it up, but a tragi-comedy based in a boys’ school in Dublin. It is Murray’s second novel – his first, An Evening of Long Goodbyes – was shortlisted for theWhitbread First Novel Award in 2003 - and is by far the funniest title I’ve read so far from this year’s Man Booker longlist. But there’s much more to it than belly laughs. Daniel Juster, aka Skippy - so named because of his buck teeth – is a small, quiet boy of around 14 boarding at Seabrook College for Boys (a fee-paying school founded by the Paraclete Father priesthood in the nineteenth century) who shares a room with the class genius Ruprecht Van Doren. Van Doren is a whizz-kid in every academic class but excels at physics and is obsessed with discovering the secrets of the universe. He is also grossly overweight, a condition not helped by the doughnut eating competitions he periodically undertakes with relish at the nearby doughnut cafe. The doughnut cafe has added allure in that it’s frequented by the girls from St Brigid’s, the girls’ school next door to Seabrook College. The boys in Skippy’s year are at different stages with regards to their experience of sex. Some, such as the macho Mario Bianchi, son of an Italian diplomat, constantly boast about sexual conquests. Others, like Skippy and Van Doren, are obviously virgins. Van Doren is more interested in M Theory and String Theory - well known hypotheses about the structure and dimensions of the universe – than in girls, but Skippy sees a beautiful girl called Lori one day and is immediately enchanted. So far so whimsical, so it’s only right to reveal that in the first few pages, Skippy dies. The magnitude of this tragedy isn’t easily absorbed when it happens because the reader doesn’t know the characters or the story. The novel is basically a rerun of the last year or so of Skippy’s life. If this sounds miserable, don’t worry, it isn’t: Skippy Dies is laugh out loud hilarious for most of its length. The story isn’t confined to Skippy’s quest to win Lori’s heart either. There are many peripheral plotlines including that of Howard Fallon, a twenty eight year-old history teacher and old boy. He used to work in the City in futures but moved to teaching a few months ago after unspecified failures at his City job. Howard lives with his American journalist girlfriend Halley, but is vaguely restless and imperceptibly niggled by little things like Halley’s smoking. There are also other strands that it wouldn’t be fair to divulge here. Suffice to say there’s plenty going on in terms of intrigue and unrequited love but also darker demons baring their teeth beneath the surface. Within a few pages the novel becomes totally captivating. Murray has a great gift for comedy and for the coarse dialogue of pubescent schoolboys, but he is also sharply astute about more serious subjects. The predominant mood in the first half of the book, though, apart from the opening pages, is of a chuckling bonhomie elicited by the banter of the boys and the slyly wicked descriptions of the object of Howard’s attention, and of Howard’s lust-fuelled crisis. We occasionally catch glimpses of something sad – the problems Skippy has at home, or his dependence on medication, for example - but for the most part the first half is a raucous romp. Even the unsavoury drug dealers Carl and Barry, who procure pills from the juniors on Ritalin for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sell them on to the St Brigid’s girls as diet pills, are painted with a joyful gusto; they may be malevolent but they’re also inadvertently very amusing. Murray writes with a polish and wit that’s rare in someone of his youth. He is one of the few authors who can carry off using frequent adverbs, because he does it for comic value: a French horn ‘gleams pompously’; when the object of Howard’s crush, Miss McIntyre, asks him why the boys call him Howard the Coward, he ‘laughs mirthlessly’; when the feathers the boys have heaped on Howard’s car drift onto his person, she informs him ‘judiciously’. There are many more such pithily chosen examples - Miss McIntyre caresses a globe she’s teaching on absently (while Howard melts); he slurps disconsolately. Murray has an acute ear for language, especially what constitutes understated comedy, and this means reading Skippy is a joy. Murray is also sufficiently close to adolescence to convey the emotions and sensations of that phase vividly. Every page carries insightful nuggets, usually leavened with humour. Skippy contemplates at one point: ’When he came back from summer holidays this year the boys had changed. Suddenly everyone was tall and gangling and talking about drinking and sperm. Walking among them is like being in a BO-smelling forest.’ There is also a wealth of minutiae that adds authenticity to the boys’ school environment. One boy has a Nervous Breakdown Leaderboard, where the more sensitive teachers alternate in the top slot depending on how much they have been tortured to breaking point by the antics of the adolescents. I lost count of how many schoolboy jaunts drove me to helpless laughter. Here’s an extract from one class showing how merciless – and un PC – schoolboys are: ‘Religion class is chaotic at the best of times, but Brother Jonas’s is like a circus where the animals have taken over. The brother is from Africa and has never quite caught on to how things work here; on Dennis’s Nervous Breakdown Leaderboard he’s usually near the top… ‘Who does the world belong to?’ Brother Jonas is asking. He has a voice that is soft and dark and rough like the pads on a dog’s paw, and his sentences go up and down tropically, like music: difficult to understand and easy to make fun of. ‘To whom has God promised the world?’ No answer; the hum of conversation continues as before, but the instant the brother turns to drag the chalk shrieking across the blackboard, everyone jumps out from behind their desks and starts hopping about and flailing their arms. This is a new routine – a kind of rain dance, performed in absolute silence, at the end of which, when Brother Jonas begins to turn round again, you jump into somebody else’s desk, so that he’s confronted with thirty serene and attentive faces, patiently awaiting his words, but all in different places from before. The chalk scrapes and squeaks. Around Skippy, bodies whirl and jog… Now the brother has finished writing and everybody’s scrambling into their seats… ‘The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth’, Brother Jonas pronounces, pointing to the words written on a gradually sloping incline on the blackboard, a caravan of letters going down a hill….’So we must ask ourselves: what is it to be meek? Jesus tells us that whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. The meek man – yes, Dennis?’ ‘Yes, I was wondering…roughly how big would a soul be, roughly? I’m thinking, bigger than a contact lens but smaller than a golf ball, would that be about right?’ ‘The soul does not have a weight or size. It is a bodiless manifestation of the eternal world and a most precious gift from the Almighty Father. Now, everyone, please open your books to page thirty seven – am I meek in my own life?… Do I listen to my teachers, my parents and my spiritual advisors? Am I a – Dennis, is your question about how to be more meek?’ ‘Would it be fair to say that Jesus was a zombie? I mean he came back from the dead, right? So technically, couldn’t you say he was a zombie?’ ‘ And so on. The exuberance of these exchanges is sobered somewhat by the concurrent problems Skippy is experiencing, so the whole is a bittersweet delight, high jinks tinged with pathos, vigorous life in parallel with a poignant swoon towards death. Murray is also adept at ordinary narrative, bringing sparkle to the mundane with an acerbic observation here and an apt detail there. Here, Halley recalls meeting Howard’s parents: ‘ It was plain when she met them that Howard’s parents – although, he said, they had enrolled his younger self in Seabrook as a conscious effort to bump the family a few rungs up the ladder – regarded teaching there as an unambiguously downward move. Dinner chez Fallon was a riot of cutlery on good china amidst long lakes of silence, like some unlistenable modernist symphony; beneath the prevailing veneer of politeness, a seething cauldron of disappointment and blame.’ Skippy’s predicament is made more powerful by Murray switching occasionally from the third-person narrator to a second-person one from Skippy’s point of view, intensifying the boy’s claustrophobic, tormented angst. And it’s not just Skippy’s haunted character that is credible. There may be slightly too many characters than is wise in a novel but all the main ones are plausible. Some of them are comedy creations, such as the manipulative, ambitious ‘Automator’, acting Principal, whose ghastly pedantry and pompousness will have readers alternately guffawing and biting their fists, while others are more chilling, such as the fearsome and ancient French teacher and priest Father Green: ‘…the priest glares back at him the same way he does at everyone, with a kind of ready, impersonal disapproval, so adept at looking into man’s soul and seeing sin, desire, ferment that he does it now like ticking a box.’ The only false note in the novel comes near the end where a crime is discovered, bringing a whole new drama to the story. It’s not so much the fact of the plot development that is difficult to digest but the way it comes to light, with the guilty party owning up immediately to a heinous crime in a wholly unfeasible way, like a schoolboy owning up to stealing a Mars bar. The confession doesn’t sit right with the character of the individual who has been truculent and uncommunicative up until then, and who you know would lie and scheme like an Archer to avoid the repercussions. The resolution of this situation is an attempt to bring a contemporary note by making a statement on a problem that has come to light in some sectors of society in the past decade. It doesn’t quite come off, the speedy glossing over is meant to be analogous to the way the problem was dealt with in real life but it sits uncomfortably in what has, until now, been a fluent and believable narrative. Still, one qualm in a book of more than 650 pages isn’t bad. Given the length, Skippy Dies may look like too great a task to take on, but Murray is one of those authors whose writing is so uplifting that the pages sail past. It’s the funniest book I’ve read so far this year, and a whole lot more.
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