On mornings when I am not asleep on the bus, or engaged in discreet surveillance of my fellow passengers, or staring morosely out the window, I can sometimes be found reading a book. The average I will read is about 25 pages per journey. With some dedication, a dense and mighty tome can be perused over the course of a few weeks. This morning – to my regret – I finished ‘Skippy Dies’ by Paul Murray, an epic tome about posh teenagers at an exclusive boarding school in Dublin.
As a child I was a massive fan of boarding school adventure stories – ‘The Twins at St Clare’s’ and ‘Mallory Towers’ series of books by Enid Blyton; and the Billy Bunter series of books by Frank L. Richards in particular. How idyllic life seemed in the hallowed halls of exclusive, residential schools in the 1930s. Jolly hockey sticks, and midnight feasts, and tricks on Mam’zelle, with vaguely lesbianic undertones were very appealing to my juvenile self. There was no bullying or acne or loneliness in those sacred places.
However time moves on, and adulthood encroached. This fad for teenaged boarding school adventures faded.
Until ‘Skippy Dies’
‘Skippy Dies’ is set in the present day, at Seabrook College, in South Dublin. Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster (so named because of his resemblance to the Australian TV bush kangaroo) and his plump friend Ruprecht Van Doren are both 14 year old, 2nd year boarders. The book begins one afternoon, after school, as they are engaged in a doughnut eating competition in Ed’s Donuts close to school. Then Skippy keels over and dies.
The book then travels back in time to reveal the background to this tragic event. The tale is told from the perspective of about twenty characters.
There’s Howard ‘The Coward’ Fallon – this history teacher and alumnus of the school, who after a disastrous attempt at an investment banking career in London returns to teach in his alma mater. Howard is in an unfulfilling relationship with a chain smoking American. He falls for alluring, substitute, geography teacher Miss McIntyre, who greets him by saying ‘I am never going to sleep with you, you know.’ Of course they do at the student Halloween Ball, when the girls at the nearby St. Brigid’s girls’ school are invited. Disastrous consequences ensue for everyone.
It is at the ball where Skippy meets Lori and falls head over heels for her. Lori is also seeing psychopath-in-the-making Carl – who as well as tormenting his classmates and self-harming, has a lucrative side-line in selling diet pills to the girls of St Brigid’s. Trouble is looming.
Meanwhile the morbidly obese genius Ruprecht is engaged in experiments to find a passage to other dimensions. Classmate Mario vows that his lucky condom will finally be used on the night of the ball (after three lonely years in his wallet.)
A hilarious book describing in painful detail the horror, isolation and confusion of adolescence; and the comfort you can gain from your friends. It is not sparing in its depiction of the depravity of the school alumni and management – people of profound mediocrity who are guaranteed lives of comfort and success merely because they are born privileged. Rather similar to a lot of semi-private schools in Dublin and elsewhere to this day. Utter cruelty is meted out to anyone who dares to threaten the reputation of the school – even so far as to cover up for the sexual abuse of the boys from an unpredictable source.
It is big, thick joy of a book – simultaneously hysterical and heart-breaking. Six hundred and sixty pages did not feel long enough.