by Paul Murray
660 pages, Faber and Faber
Review by Marc Nash
The book opens with Daniel "Skippy" Juster's death and it's in the title so there's no spoiler about this. Just spoiled, as in a gift hamper you wait until a special occasion to open, and all the food has turned...
For this novel comes as a three-book box set. Huh? Is it maybe that if it were a 660 page thick tome, you wouldn't plough all the way through, but somehow the gape in the box set and the volume 3 goading you force you to battle to the end?
A Dublin private school run by priests, but in the throes of modernisation and succumbing to material rather than spiritual management. Some kids board. The teachers are all old boys who failed in the real world and come crawling back to the school for refuge.
We are treated to their microworld of schoolboy obsessions and the craziness inherent of hermetic communities. So far so hum drum. I for one am bored of first love tales. It doesn't help that I didn't believe either Skippy's love with the most desirable girl from the school next door Lori, or even the love of history teacher Howard "The Coward's" love for slumming it Geography supply teacher Aurelie. Both couples are mismatched.
There is an attempt at an epic sweep throughout and I acknowledge Murray conducts his symphony of characters with great aplomb. But the world is too small to sustain the epic nature he seeks. There is some reference to the horrors of the First World War, Kipling and the War Poets, Graves' White Goddess and string theory physics, and while the little excursions into these subjects work in themselves, they feel a bit bolted on to the whole. Skippy's room-mates experiments crossing string theory over into communing with the dead just lost all my belief in the book.
The best character is schoolboy Dennis Hoey, arch cynic and misanthrope, who is described as "sincerity being to Dennis what salt is to slugs", evidence of a nice turn of phrase here and there, but whose general antipathy to the world of the school merely reflects my own. Yet Dennis is nothing compared to the school psychopath Carl, hopped up on pills and hallucinations, but the murderous flights of fancy ascribed to him by the author are just poorly rendered. Like so much contained here, I neither believed his persecutionary visions, nor did I care. Everyone ends up having a quest to fulfill, be it some spiritual redemption, or some making reparation. The fact that the cast of characters charged with such devoirs are addicts, psychos, pederasts, anorexics, obese or whatever common or garden variety of screw-up you care to mention, just inevitably put them beyond any hope of success.
I still don't understand why the book was manufactured as a box set. The artwork is light, the tone of the novel also lacks gravitas, so the box set presentation seems wholly out of tune. As an Irish writer, I see Murray as writing about similar themes as a writer like Richard Milward ("Apples"), about contemporary youth and their values and vistas, but with far more of a softer, Irish tinge than Milward. I find neither approach to be satisfactory. Milward's youth are just repellant. Murray's are just spoilt and self-indulgent.
Skippy Dies. Yeah, so what. I didn't shed a tear. Except to mourn my own investment in reading this to the bitter end.