Friday 17 November 2017

Sharp and accurate spots-and-all story of adolescence

Teen acne and ecstasy is captured with wit, insight and skill. By Dermot Bolger

Dermot Bolger

Skippy Dies

Paul Murray

Hamish Hamilton, €18.20

James Joyce boasted that if Dublin was wiped from the Earth, its streets and characters could be recreated from scratch by reference to a single book -- Ulysses. It is not something that a certain Southside Dublin college may be over-eager to boast about, but it might be argued that if Dublin's most famous school was wiped out, as a consequence of some intergalactic ruck, a great deal of what is perceived to be its essence and milieu could be recreated by reference to two very fine recent Irish novels about teenage life.

Both create parallel fictional versions of a type of institution that stands at the epicentre of an intricate web of "old-boy" connections stretching across generations. But if Kevin Power's Bad Day in Blackrock tried to capture that world in terse understatement, Paul Murray's sweepingly ambitious Skippy Dies takes a blackly comic and meandering voyage around that gilded but troubled teenage world.

Seven years ago, Murray's debut An Evening of Long Goodbyes was deservedly shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. This -- his second novel -- copperfastens his reputation as an innovative and often dazzling talent. Skippy Dies might even be called his second, third and fourth novels, in that this 661-page triptych comes in three distinctive parts: Hopeland, Heartland and Ghostland -- which is being sold as a single volume and also in a boxed three-part set.

Reflecting on the relative dearth of Irish comic-writing for the stage, Joe Dowling once remarked that the Irish have a mortal terror of not being profound. Thankfully, Murray is more than happy to bring us a blend of absurdity merged with pertinent insights in that volcanically charged state of confusion called adolescence.

Joyce pioneered the notion of the heroically unheroic common man, but even he might have balked at having a 14-year-old central character -- nicknamed for his resemblance to a fictional television kangaroo -- expire on the opening page during a doughnut-eating race in a glaringly ugly cafe against his friend Ruprecht Van Doren, "a hamster-cheeked boy with a chronic weight-problem [who] is bad at sports and most other facets of life not involving complicated mathematical equations."

Not that Skippy -- a boarder in Seabrook College (famous for its care, and after-care, of generations of well-heeled boys) -- gets to be the central figure in his own death. A measure of the novel's ambition (and occasionally one of its weaknesses) is that Skippy -- real name Daniel Juster -- is just one of a host of characters whose lives jostle against each other as they orbit within the shadow of that school.

There is Ruprecht, Skippy's roommate, obsessed with the scientific mysteries of string theory and the possibilities of opening up portals into other existences, in a class more obsessed with the mysteries of Stringfellow's. There is their history teacher, Howard, a former Seabrook boy who made bad in the financial maze of London and returns to lick his wounds and live a life of cowardice and a reasonable amount of lust. There is Greg, the acting lay headmaster, who must have done a FAS course -- not that ex-Seabrook boys would do FAS courses -- in cynicism and administrative manipulation. There is Tom, a former rugby hero turned paedophile swim coach, and Father Green, a moral beacon flawed by his own past.

There is Skippy's classmate Carl, who wishes to graduate in drug-dealing and psychopathic bullying. Then there is the object of desire for Carl and Skippy, Lori -- the book's most tender creation, whose seemingly perfect life capsizes in the aftermath of the death of the boy she barely knew, whose last act is to scrawl on the floor the words "tell Lori".

Few writers have captured the acne and ecstasy of adolescence so well, with constantly sharp observations and dialogue. These disparate stories gel together in the closing book, which moves with great narrative thrust.

There is an operatically large arc to the book's climax, but beneath the comedy there are beautifully observed moments of confusion and realisation, most especially in the haunted figure of Lori, whose grimly determined shopaholic mother -- who spends the book trying to tan and shop the girl to death -- is torn between the only two career choices she can envisage for her daughter: to be a television talk-show hostess or a model.

Skippy Dies is intricate and multi-layered. If it occasionally gets caught between too many stools, it is a measure of its ambition that it takes on such a broad canvas -- careering through the emotional war zones of puberty and the stagnant moral morass of adulthood -- and a measure of its success that it draws it all so brilliantly together in the end.

Sunday Independent

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