If you are hoping for a tale that looks fondly upon grade school years, “Skippy Dies” isn’t for you. Taken as a whole, the emotion, drama, humor, and confusion of the story is just about a perfect metaphor for the real and imagined pains of being a teenager.
Paul Murray has a rare gift for telling a story. “Skippy Dies” is about a group of 14 year-old boys at Seabrook School near Dublin, Ireland. It is also about the boys’ teachers, their priests, their parents, their love interests from the school next door, and the bullies that make their lives hell. As the title suggests, the main character Skippy does indeed die. On page 5. The book is mostly a flashback of a few months just prior to his death and then a harrowing 200-page “epilogue” about what follows Skippy’s untimely demise.
Skippy is a troubled kid: his mom is dying, he is abused by those that he should be able to trust, and he is socially awkward. Yet he is also the nexus for his group of friends (delightful characters who add a playfulness to the book right when it is most needed). He has fallen in love with a train wreck of a young girl, Lori, who is more Britney Spears than girl-next-door. For a good pop culture comparison of Lori, think of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character in Cruel Intentions. Other major characters include Skippy’s teacher Howard (“Howard the Coward”), a youngish alum of Seabrook who teaches with many of his former classmates, and who is careening through his quarter-life crisis without a plan or a spine. Skippy’s friend Ruprecht is also a major character. It is through Ruprecht’s fantasies and scientific passions which we see Murray’s point about life.
What’s his point? Life ain’t always grand. More often than not, it is difficult. Moments of true glory and emotion are few and far between. The rest is just hard. And grade school is harder. Ruprecht imagines ways to visit other universes and he does this because he is miserable in his own. Skippy and his cohorts were familiar to anyone who was once a teen. The kids struggled with the psychological changes that accompany the physical changes of age fourteen. In the end they just wanted to understand the world around them. Ruprecht commits himself to science to try to make things clear. Skippy falls head over heels in love. Others try lust, drugs, cynicism and the most common approach, simply trying to blend in. This book wasn’t so much about growing up as it was about losing innocence. And it was as heartbreaking to read as it was to experience.
These kids were vulnerable to a group of would-be role models (teachers, administrators and priests) who were fighting demons of their own and who were in no place to explain how the world was supposed to work. Howard was walking around with his own baggage from high school, a failed career and the clear implication that by returning to Seabrook to teach, his life had gone precisely nowhere. His cowardice in life is defeated only once when he throws caution to the wind and has a passionate one night stand (during the school dance) with a substitute teacher. Howard is the harbinger for the boys at Seabrook if they don’t make the right moves in life.
Maybe I’m revealing my own bias about grade school. I’m not one of those who look fondly on the middle school days. I remember myself as awkward, out of place, uncool, and unwise to the ways of the world. I suspect that I was wrong in thinking everyone else in school had everything figured out. But at the time, it just seemed like I was the only naïve one.
It probably wasn’t that bad. But kids can be mean. More likely, their malice is a defense mechanism. Some of the characters in “Skippy Dies” were straight out of Dublin Schools—not Dublin, Ireland, but my Dublin near Columbus, Ohio. Others were more mature, examples of how kids are even more grown up today then they were a mere 15 years ago. While we liked vodka and lemonade, these kids liked diet pills. I don’t believe Murray exaggerated too much—today’s kids are indeed exposed to life’s demons way too soon.
I’ve been trying to do more fiction as a break from the norm and the reason I like books like “Skippy Dies” is that they can be windows into our own lives. At one point, I’m sure I possessed Skippy’s and Ruprecht’s innocence; in fact I think we often look back on our own innocence and remember it fondly. But innocence is also a burden that weighs us down and exposes our vulnerabilities. Growing up is painful, and Murray’s raucous review of grade school reminds us of just how traumatic it can be to grow up and see the world how it really exists.