In the song “Teenage Dream”, the pop tartlet Katy Perry sings of an idealized romance, one that takes her exactly as she is, without makeup or artifice, and which allows her to let her guard down. “Let’s go all the way tonight, no regrets, just love,” she pleads. “We can dance until we die, you and I, we’ll be young forever.” While her song is branded as an ode to authentic love, what it really is a requiem to the idea of vivid fantasy. Nothing post-adolescence will ever feel as sharp or electrifying, and it is no surprise that the song has found a second life in its cover version on Glee, performed by an all-boys acapella group. Yet, as much as we’d like to mock the sincerity, any reader must recognize the impulse. By tapping into the ache of adolescent memories, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies is a soaring ode to teenage dreams, every paradise and nightmare, and far and away the best book I’ve read in years.
In constructing the world of Dublin’s Seabrook College for Boys, Murray has created a universe as rich and vibrant as any imaginary boarding school, but laced with a tart humor and bawdiness. You have Skippy, who perishes in the book’s opening scenes during a doughnut-eating contest, but more on him later. You have Skippy’s roommate Ruprecht, an Ignatius J. Reilly-esque figure obsessed with finding a portal into a parallel “multiverse.” You have the Seabrook’s boys, including both Mario, the self-proclaimed sex god of the group (whose “lucky condom” holds near mythic status, despite its never being used), and Carl, a teenage drug dealer with psychopathic tendencies who scores when he finds a buyer willing to pay him in heavy make-out sessions. Framing the stories of these lads is Howard Fallon, a history teacher and a former Seabrook student, who isn’t sure what to make of these students, as he hasn’t yet “glimpsed the secret machinery of the world, the grown-up world, in which matters arise.” While Howard may have graduated, he is just as puerile and erratic as his students.
All these characters, whether they carry a pre-pubescent swagger or a middle-aged shrug—are unmoored, and they fill their time with wild delusions. Ruprecht spends hours researching the secrets of string theory, and how they might open another dimension… research that eventually requires breaking into Seabrook’s sister school, an adventure Mario treats like the quest for the Holy Grail. In dealing drugs to his fellow students, Carl comes to view himself as a kind of mythic antihero, a performance shattered when he discovers his best customer, Lori, is also Skippy’s highly improbable object of affection. Howard heads off on his own perfect quest when he meets Aurelia McIntyre, a substitute teacher whose wardrobe Howard says came from the closets of “all the preppy golden-haired princesses he yearned for hopelessly across malls and churches of his youth.” As she baits him with open-ended suggestions of sex—everything about her “remains defiantly ambiguous, including the question of whether or not she wants to be romanced”—Howard becomes as hormonally crazed as his students, and like his students, he does not handle misfortune well. He becomes, perhaps for the first time in his highly ordered life, slightly unhinged, and on the brink of dangerously behavior.
Skippy most of all feels a few crayons short of a full box. Slight and easily overlooked, his voice is an ever-aware narrative of anxiety and ambition and an unspoken wish to be understood. Tormented by troubles at home—a distracted and distant father, an ill and sorely missed mother—Skippy yearns unlike any character in fiction I’ve ever read. After a particularly unsatisfying phone call home, Skippy goes through the motions of pulling it together, all while Murray shows us the unraveling: “You hang up, wipe your eyes and nose on your sleeve, hover a long time by the window taking long shuddery breaths… How can they know what it looks like way off in space, when they can’t tell what’s happening inside the body of a person that’s right there in front of them?!!… Do you feel like you’re caught in the mouth of something huge?” When he meets Lori, she becomes his entire reason for being, and his ecstasy at finally being noticed was almost too real for this reader to bear. You so desperately want him to be happy, to find someone who truly sees him for who he could be, and when that is denied, and as we hurtle towards an explanation of how Skippy reaches his tragic demise, it’s impossible not to gasp with grief.
Murray is both quick and true-to-character with his dialogue, and creates hypnotic, winding meditations. He reveals every character’s perspective, even those we loathe or resent, with hyper-specific detail. Howard looks across the school’s rugby pitches as the days wane, the light deepening and reddening and flattening out, making it appear that the school is going up in flames. Skippy wanders through a Halloween dance, his eyes taking in black balloons floating overhead “like lost souls.” Carl interprets the unwanted embrace of a drug-addicted girl “like a teacher with a favorite but always naughty child.” Yet Murray never overdoses it with the purple prose; he has a uncanny ability to communicate the language of adolescence rage, lust, disappointment, and despair, and as we hurtle toward the novel’s ending, he allows these voices to layer and crash into each other, creating a massive confusion and dissonance—that never once feels sloppy. It’s a masterpiece of chaos, and a hell of a cacophonous ending.
Anyone who’s had a painful adolescence—is there any other kind?—will inevitably be swept up in the agonies that Murray eloquently puts forth. The torture of a first failed romance, the quiet loathing that can be directed towards one’s supposed “best” friends, the simmering conflict between the impulse to learn one’s lines or to burn the proverbial house down. But what the novel is really about is the ways in which loneliness can undo even the most boisterous teenage blowhard. The novel is broken into three segments—Hopeland, Heartland, and Ghostland—a structure that a story of inevitable decay and reconciliation to harder, more unromantic lives. As the Automator tells Howard, “Dreaming’s not something we encourage here… Reality, that’s what we’re all about. Reality; objective, empirical truths.” The grand question that Murray poses to us is whether or not Skippy would be better off confronted with reality—with all the ugly, irreconcilable truths of adulthood—or instead being allowed to drift in his own cloud of possibilities. Even after we know why he died, it’s hard to imagine that Skippy died from anything other than a broken heart.
Ultimately, Skippy Dies proves to be both suffused with regret and, quite surprisingly, great humor and hope. Seabrook is not solely the story of Skippy and his untimely end, but instead a series of voices, of wishes, of dreams. Lori tries to picture the world not as defined by a series of strings, cut or not cut by malevolent Fates, but instead
[by] an infinite number of time vibrating stories; once upon a time they all were part of one big giant superstory, except it got broken up into a jillion different pieces, that’s why no story on its own makes any sense, and so what you have to do in a life is try and weave it back together, my story into your story, our stories into all the other people’s we know, until you’ve got something that to God or whoever might look like a letter or even a whole word…
The great secret, dear Lori, is that even as an adult, you never quite finish weaving the stories together. And in this gem of a novel, Paul Murray has made one hell of an attempt.