In "Skippy Dies," which was a semifinalist for this year's Man Booker Prize, the Irish writer Paul Murray has implanted a contaminating horror within a picaresque novel about a posh Catholic high school. The reader is treated to a varied banquet — only to discover a lump of carrion in it.
Right at the start, Skippy, a 14-year-old second-year student at Dublin's Seabrook College, collapses in a doughnut shop and dies from an overdose of tranquilizers. What follows traces what led up to the death. There are all kinds of strands to the story but in the broadest sense what Murray has written about is the lethal consequences a world of corrupt adult authority can hold for its adolescent charges, themselves a wonderfully drawn mix of innocence and incipient corruption. In a narrower sense, it is also a tale that involves pedophile abuse by two teachers — a priest and a layman.
Murray, though, does not devote his novel just to developing the horror that we see creeping up on the fragile Skippy (a horror compounded by a criminally deranged schoolmate, Carl, and Carl's loathsome schoolgirl sidekick, Lori). Seabrook may be a fallen world, but with its uncurbed yet touchingly hesitant assortment of teenage ventures, schemes and plights and its menagerie of teachers, it is also very much a world teeming with life.
The novel's most appealing and artful achievement is the small circle of second-year students around Skippy. Perpetually quarreling, sardonic and mutually suspicious, and portrayed with a comically aching individuality, they are held together by a frail, us-against-the-world loyalty. It is a thing of time and circumstance; one of Murray's achievements is to evoke the mournfully short-lived nature of adolescent forevers.
The group's center is not Skippy but his roommate Ruprecht, a brilliant, overweight, doughnut-gobbling science wonk who talks perpetually about string theory. He is a butt to his derisive companions, yet cherished; and this is another of Murray's many achievements. They find a kind of relief and hopefulness in obsessions that take them away from their own immersion in the usual adolescent concerns with sex, identity, status. Ruprecht enlists them in two disastrous attempts to build an electrical device to transport objects through time via string theory's 11th dimension. Comically far-fetched, it also suggests the teenage need to reach for the impossible.
Skippy is less a fully formed character than an innocent and a victim. One element of his vulnerability is grief over a dying mother; more central is his desperate love for Lori, who attends the girls' equivalent of Seabrook. She is elusive, frail herself, obsessed for a while with Carl, Skippy's sadistic, increasingly insane schoolmate. Her mixed signals to Skippy bring him closer to the edge. The edge becomes a nightmarish free fall when his swimming coach gives him sleeping pills and rapes him; and Father Green, the French teacher, makes an unspecified sexual overture. What is virtually unbearable to read is not any explicit action — there is none — but Skippy's entrapped despair.
After his death, Seabrook's administrators decide to handle the matter "internally" on the recommendation of Costigan, the manipulative and ambitious acting principal. Costigan's smooth, self-serving fixes are a leading motif in the novel; as a character, though, he is something of a caricature.
More interesting is Father Green, harsh, reactionary — "a vertical pen stroke" in his black cassock — and tormented by his attraction to boys. It is an attraction he has struggled to repress; the school authorities take no action. But unlike the swim teacher, he pays what price he can for Skippy's death by quitting his post and working in the Dublin slums.
Some of the story is more garish than effective. A school dance that gets out of hand turns into a hardly credible orgy. Carl's violent sadism coupled with pornographic delusions makes him more werewolf than person. And the climax generates a lot less flame than many of the passages — by turns comic, shrewd and sometimes profoundly affecting — in Murray's portraits of students and teachers.
And beneath Ruprecht's mingled excitement and fearfulness over the calculations for his time machine (not so much an absurdity as the glitch of an apprentice discoverer), the presentiment of future solitude. "To do anything, epic or mundane, bound for glory or doomed to failure, is in its way to say goodbye to a world."