If there is a literary equivalent to movies that mix live action and animation a la Cool World and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Paul Murray’s darkly cartoonish novel Skippy Dies is it. Set in a so-so Catholic boarding school near Dublin, the book centers around the undoing of two 14-year-old boys, one lovesick and shy, the other cheerfully nerdy and enchanted by science.
Here’s an email that the nerdy one, Ruprecht Van Doren, sends into outer space early in the book as part of his search for extraterrestrial life:
Greetings, fellow intelligent life-forms! I am Ruprecht Van Doren, a fourteen-year-old human boy from planet Earth. My favourite food is pizza. My favourite large animal is the hippo. Hippos are excellent swimmers despite their bulk. However, they can be more aggressive than their sleepy demeanour might suggest. Approach with caution!!! When I finish school, I intend to do my PhD at Stanford University. A keen sportsman, my hobbies include programming my computer and Yahtzee, a game of skill and chance played with dice.
One of the feisty wiseacres Ruprecht hangs around with reads this and thinks it’s really stupid. “Who the hell’s going to want to reply to that?” he says. “It’s the gayest e-mail I ever heard.”
Later in the book — the same book! — Ruprecht loses his faith in science and math, stops speaking, and grows obese from grief following the sudden death of Skippy, his best friend and roommate. That’s how all over the place this long, bumpy novel is: one minute you’re LOLing at the incredibly funny dialogue between the kids and the next you’re barely holding it together in the face of Murray’s unflinching rendering of adolescent despair and disillusionment. This is not just black humor, either, nor absurdist horror — Skippy does actually die, and there is actually a cause, and someone is actually responsible. And contrary to what you might think based on the novel’s jaunty title and deceptively smiling flap copy, his death is treated not as a joke but as a tragedy.
And while it’s undoubtedly the novel’s central event, it’s also just one of many emotionally punishing plot lines that take up its 660 pages. These plot lines — about unrequited love, about drugs, about becoming an adult and resigning oneself to life as an orthodontist — unfold one top of the other, with Murray shifting his attention every time one short chapter ends and another begins. Murray fights on a bunch of different fronts at once, and to his credit, it’s only very late in the game that you realize — and start getting distracted by — how all the stories he’s telling fit together thematically. Spoiler alert: the book is “about” history, memory, and the crushing asymmetry of our lawless universe.
For all that, Skippy Dies is at its best when Murray is trying to be funny. My favorite bit takes place when Ruprecht and the boys are trying to come up with a way for Skippy to prevail over his rival in love, and Dennis — the same fellow who earlier taunted Ruprecht for his email to the space aliens — proposes building a death ray and evaporating the guy. Ruprecht dismisses this as a bad idea, on the basis that “violence never solved anything,” and Dennis disagrees. “Violence solves everything, you idiot, look at the history of the world,” he says. “Any situation they have, they dick around with it for a while, then they bring in violence.” Later on Dennis flips out when he finds out he’s supposed to play the bassoon in a quartet with Ruprecht as part of a concert celebrating the school’s 140th anniversary: “I’ll saw my hands off,” he declares, “before I appear on stage with you and your Orchestra of Gays!”
There are lots like this. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the word “gay” used in the pejorative sense to greater comic effect than it is in Skippy Dies. And if that’s not your cup of tea, rest assured that the punch lines in this book are plentiful and varied: some are meant to make you laugh, while others take the form of virtuosic turns of phrase and improbably resonant metaphors. A man is tormented by visions of the woman he loves standing on the deck of an ocean cruiser with her fiance, draped in a “garland of muscular arms.” Skippy stares at a girl “uncomprehendingly, like she’s a new letter of the alphabet.” Skippy’s father, at a loss for how to talk to his son on the phone, hides his discomfort by covering himself with “pieces of dads from TV.” These are great phrases, and the regularity with which they appear throughout Skippy Dies makes the book a page-turner because one so looks forward to coming across more of them.
Come for the gay jokes, stay for the prose. Just don’t come expecting some kind of funhouse fairy tale.