Over the past 50 years, Americans have developed an intense appreciation for Irish art and culture. Kind of. It's not that Americans don't still love the Emerald Isle, it's just that we tend to romanticize the country by associating it with shamrocks, harps and rolling green fields — and constantly calling it "the Emerald Isle." Even though Ireland never really had much in common with the fairytale land of Darby O'Gill and the Little People, the images have stuck in the American consciousness — it's only been relatively recently that U.S. audiences have showed an interest in the gritty side of Ireland that has little to do with charming countryside towns and impromptu choruses of "Sean dun na Ngall."
It's this tough, Celtic Tiger-era Ireland that is the setting for Paul Murray's hilarious second novel, Skippy Dies. The book follows several characters associated with Seabrook College, a Catholic secondary school for boys in an increasingly rundown Dublin neighborhood. Daniel "Skippy" Juster is a shy teenage swimmer infatuated with Lorelei, a student at a neighboring girl's school — and, as the title promises, the novel opens with his death at a doughnut shop. When Skippy's not busy mooning over Lorelei and trying to dodge her jealous ex-lover Carl, a violently disturbed drug dealer, he spends time with his roommate Ruprecht, a genius obsessed with M-theory, and their cadre of bored, irreverent friends. Meanwhile, Skippy's young, pensive history teacher Howard Fallon watches his own life fall apart as he falls in love with a colleague he suspects is unattainable. Nothing comes easy for anyone here, if it comes at all. "Really liking something is an automatic way of making sure you don't get it," notes one of Skippy's bitter friends.
In spite of all that — the longing, the disappointment, the violence — Skippy Dies is a deeply funny book. Murray's sense of humor is gleefully absurd, but indisputably intelligent; there's not a single cheap laugh in these pages. And while he mines a good deal of hilarious material from Skippy's infatuation and Ruprecht's social obliviousness, Murray is at his funniest when his teeth are bared. In one scene, Ruprecht's cynical friend Dennis defends his adolescent desire for a "death ray" to kill bullies with: "Violence solves everything, you idiot, look at the history of the world. Any situation they have, they [mess] around with it for a while, then they bring in violence. That's the whole reason they have scientists, to make violence more violent."
Murray earned a reputation as a brilliant stylist after his 2004 debut novel An Evening of Long Goodbyes, and in this sophomore effort, he jumps in between voices and points of view with a joyful effortlessness. He's just as convincing when he's re-creating the (scary) voice of an unhinged teenage bully as he is inhabiting the psyche of a 20-something American woman who's been jilted by her partner. It's hard to think of many recent young novelists who have swung for the stylistic fences to this degree, and even harder to think of ones who have managed to pull it off so flawlessly. Reading Skippy Dies is a lot like reading a Saki story as interpreted by Neil Jordan (who is scheduled to write and direct the film adaptation of this novel) — which is to say, it's deeply funny, deeply weird and unlike anything you've ever encountered before.