Yes, Skippy does indeed die. On the fifth page. At which point the book jumps back in time and then moves forward to show us how/why Skippy died. The book (particularly the rollicking first half) is, as the kids used to say, B-A-N-A-N-A-S. Multiple characters (Skippy, his fellow Irish Catholic prep school boarders, their teachers, girls from the adjacent Catholic girls school and the two young thugs/entrepreneurs who are selling them diet pills) whose lives join somewhere in the Skippy universe. And what a universe it turns out to be in Paul Murray’s sprawling (661 pages!) coming of age novel. Or, more accurately, failure to come of age novel. Indeed, if justice exists in the literary world (hint: it doesn’t), Skippy Dies will eventually be the locus classicus of the twenty-first century failure to come of age genre.
Here is what I wrote to myself halfway through:
Skippy is in love with one of the rich girls from the neighboring all-girls school. She even kissed him, albeit while she was strongly under the influence of drugs. Unfortunately, this girl, Lori, also has a sort-of-boyfriend named Carl (he's the one supplying the drugs). Carl is, as the Irish would say, mental. He is also violent, as evidenced by the immense black eye (well, it's purple now) Skippy is currently sporting. And that's just Skippy's story: his teacher Howard the Coward just told his live-in girlfriend that things are not working out (mainly because Howard is in love with a substitute teacher at school); his roommate Ruprecht is still trying to figure out how the eleventh dimension works and whether he can contact aliens; and too many other plot points to list here. At this point Skippy’s death, and Howard’s futility at adult relationships, and Ruprecht’s failures as a scientific prodigy, and the administrative foibles of Greg Costigan (“the Automator”) all still played for laughs. Make no mistake: Skippy Dies is one of the funniest books I have ever read.
Please do not code that as damning Murray with faint praise, however. We often equate “funny” with “slight,” (see also: Academy Awards, Best Picture) but Skippy Dies is not a slight book, either in size, scope, or impact.
Found in this tome: the historiography of World War I, with a particular nod to the Irish involvement; string theory and multi-dimensionality in general; sexual abuse and cover up within the Catholic Church; as hilarious a set piece involving a high school dance as you will ever read; boarding school and class distinction; sex; lack of sex; drugs; a nuanced portrayal of teaching and teachers; and, in the latter stages, a sadly beautiful portrayal of wounded souls trying and mostly failing to make meaningful connections. What we as readers laughed at earlier becomes poignant as we understand why various characters act as they do. (Which is not to say the book ceases to be hilarious—it does not.)
Skippy, with his death, literally fails to come of age. But the other characters in the book, adolescents and adults alike, share in this failure. Adulthood is presented as an asymptote, a line we may approach but never actually reach. I realize Skippy Dies, with its doorstop heft, will not appeal to all, but the teenage me would have devoured it, ascribed to it talisman-like qualities, and proselytized its transformative worth to all I deemed worthy. I know this because the “adult” me has just attempted to do the very same thing.