A Boy's Life

In the novel Skippy Dies, death is just the beginning

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He really does die. It's in the opening scene. But as Paul Murray's novel backtracks to explain what brought about his death, Skippy is so desperately, painfully alive that you hope the mere act of reading about him will save him.

Skippy Dies (Faber & Faber; 661 pages) is set at Seabrook College, an Irish secondary school where prestige is giving way to shabbiness and aging priests are giving way to ambitious laymen. At its heart is a gang of 14-year-olds who fit together like the disparate cells of a single organism. Skippy is the quiet, Nintendo-obsessed glue that bonds overweight nerd Ruprecht to cynic Dennis to childish Geoff to self-styled lady killer Mario. They speak such perfect variants of teen boy that it's tempting to spend the rest of this space quoting them — especially Mario, an irrepressible horndog blissfully deaf to the paradox that his "lucky" condom has been in his wallet, unused, for three years.

When Skippy dies, the organism begins to fail, and all the stuff Ruprecht is fond of spouting about the tragic asymmetry of the universe — hitherto cited as an explanation for why Boy A might like Girl B when she's hung up on Boy C — begins to take on another dimension. The boys want their equilibrium back, and their efforts to get it bring them to a crossroads of science, folklore and faith.

Murray balances these forces in finely tuned chords of pathos and comedy, a virtuosic display you'd expect from a writer with the confidence to kill off his title character in the title. He also has a theory as to why we get so caught up in boarding-school plots. It's not just that the child is father of the man, provided he survives adolescence. It's that those formative years are a microcosm not of life but of the entire universe. "When you think about it, the Big Bang's a bit like school, isn't it?" says Ruprecht:

One day we'll all leave here and become scientists and bank clerks and diving instructors and hotel managers — the fabric of society, so to speak. But in the meantime, that fabric, that is to say, us, the future, is crowded into one tiny little point where none of the laws of society applies, viz., this school.

Not that the adults in Skippy Dies get much guidance from the laws of society — least of all Howard, a history teacher and Seabrook grad caught up in his own romantic asymmetry. But there is something about the boys' perspective — the questions they ask of the universe and the hope they have of getting answers — that makes you wonder, against all logic, whether they might be on to something big.