"Il y a un autre monde mais il est dans celui-ci." ("There is another world, but it is in this one.")
Skippy Dies is all about other worlds. It's about how the same place and series of events is experienced and lived differently by different people, effectively making each experience a different reality entirely.
It's also about String Theory, Samhain, White Goddesses, Black Goddesses, Frisbees, pop music, prescription drugs, mistakes, redemption, sin, eating disorders, unwanted erections, brass bands, donuts, WWI, blow jobs, sex, and pretty much anything else you can think of.
It's about all the things that makes life what it is.
Before I go on, I gotta say that Skippy Dies is, hands down, the best book I've read in the past two years. It stirred my emotions, made me reflect, and prevented me from sleeping. It made me remember other books and movies and songs. It was hard to read sometimes because I knew that things were going to go badly. But I had to keep reading it because despite the shit and the death and the sadness and the utter despair, it was funny and fun and full of life.
And yet this book was only short listed for a handful of unknown awards, the most well-known being the Costa Book Awards, an award given to books that convey "enjoyment of reading to the widest possible audience".
Meanwhile, The Sister's Brothers, a book about nothing except death, that doesn't give anyone any sense of joy, wins a billion accolades. I swear that the prestigious prizes are handed out to the books that are the most opaque and mirthless. Books that when you read them you think, "I don't understand where this is going. What's happening? Who are these people? Why should I care? This is painful. It must be too smart for me."
Skippy Dies isn't a Danielle Steele novel or a Harry Potter book that you can read in a week on your commute. It's a heartbreaking real novel about a group of boys and their teachers in a boarding school in Ireland.
The students are adolescent boys filled with hormones, smarts, secrets, sadness and, in some cases, copious quantities of prescription drugs.
The teachers are broken human beings, full of flaws, unfulfilled dreams and regrets.
The religious order that up to this point used to run the school? They are surprisingly human.
And the writing is fucking brilliant. Paul Murray, whoever this guy is, somehow manages to write adolescent boys, washed up teachers and sad teen girls with a realism that I don't even think actual adolescent boys, washed up teachers or sad teen girls could achieve, if they were so inclined to write about themselves. Which they probably wouldn't be. And Paul Murray knows that.
The writing is funny. The narration switches point of view between -- I swear -- at least 20 different characters and never once did I get confused about who was talking, unlike some other books I could mention. (*cough*The Help*cough*)
Basically, there is this boys school where there are some boarders, including our intrepid Skippy. Skippy is a quiet boy who likes to play video games to escape the sad reality that is his home life, not to mention a bunch of other unpleasant memories. His best friend, Rupert, is a "science nerd" who is trying to discover the other, parallel universes posited by String Theory. The rest of his friends are your usual bunch of confused, screwed up, and incredibly funny teen boys. Skippy falls in love with Lori, of the girl's school next door. During one inexplicably magical Hallowe'en dance when it appears that the portal to another universe has opened up and the White Goddess (and some roofies in the punch) influences events, Lori falls in love with Skippy.
Skippy's behaviour gets misinterpreted by the school's acting principal -- the only character in the book who is a bit cartoonish -- who decides Skippy is a bad egg and has him sent to the deaf priest who acts as guidance counselor. It's all fun and games until Skippy dies.
That's when it all goes to shit. It's like that point after the 1980 New Year's Eve party in Boogie Nights when everything suddenly goes bad and then it stays bad until everyone hits rock bottom and they realize that even if they aren't Big Stars, they can keep living and doing what they do.
At the end, everyone -- well, except one character -- finds redemption and hope. They realize that they are more than individuals and that their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. They also realize that performing unannounced musical distortion at the Christmas Pageant is a Bad Idea.
And so life goes on. It goes on without Skippy, but it goes on.
PS: I know that NPR has told you to read The Help. According to my book, NPR says that if you read only one book this year, it should be The Help. I'm telling you if you're going to read only one book this year, read Skippy Dies.