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Review: Intrigue in a prep school that's not exactly magical in 'Skippy Dies' by Paul Murray

Let's get right to it: On Page 5 of Paul Murray's dazzling new novel, Skippy Dies . . . Skippy dies.

"Skippy exhales — he smiles. Then he lies back on the tiles; and Ruprecht sees quite clearly the rise and fall of his breast gently come to a stop."

If killing your protagonist with more than 600 pages to go sounds audacious, it's nothing compared to the literary feats Murray (An Evening of Long Goodbyes) pulls off in this hilarious, moving and wise book.

Recently named to the Man Booker Prize long list, Skippy Dies is an epic crafted around, of all things, a pack of 14-year-old boys. It's the Moby-Dick of Irish prep schools.

The school in question is Dublin's venerable Seabrook College (the equivalent of a private American high school), a 140-year-old institution whose social dynamics make Lord of the Flies seem like Gilligan's Island. Its halls are a maze of bullying, name-calling, alcohol and drug use, sexual obsession and predation. And that's just the faculty.

Our hero is one Daniel "Skippy" Juster, a slight, slightly disturbed second-year whose sudden collapse in the midst of a doughnut-eating contest forms the book's central mystery. Imagine Harry Potter dying at Hogwarts early on, and you've got a bead on the dark heart of this comic novel.

Murray gives us a real villain, too, in the junior sociopath Carl, who, with his pal Barry, shakes down little kids for their ADHD medicine to sell to girls as diet pills.

When Carl becomes Skippy's rival for the affections of a vacant, Frisbee-tossing cutie named Lori, the danger is real, the result chilling.

The mixture of tones is the book's true triumph, oscillating the banal with the sublime, the silly with the terrifying, the sweet with the tragic. In short, it's like childhood. In shorter, like life.

The book's refrain — that we never really outgrow being lovesick, awkward, bullying children — isn't exactly breaking news, but it's never been truer.

Skippy Dies

By Paul Murray

Faber & Faber, 661 pages, $28

Review: Intrigue in a prep school that's not exactly magical in 'Skippy Dies' by Paul Murray 09/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 25, 2010 4:30am]
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