by Weston Cutter
I’m not sure what’s the best way to begin talking about this book. One of the publicity pushes seemed to be about trying to locate the book as a sort of Harry Potter-ish-meets-Infinite-Jest-ish type monster, and that’s fair enough, in ways (certainly there are Jest echoes: the all boys school [Seabrook College], the mightily funny/crude/honest dialogue, the fact that several characters in here are almost entirely dialogue [they do stuff, they're not just disembodied voices, but we know them largely only by what and how they say things]). But the Potter/Jest schema doesn’t really do justice to what Murray’s done in and made with Skippy Dies. What he’s made, overtly, is a bildungsroman about a kid named Daniel “Skippy” Juster, though you know what growth/development the kid’s got in store for him right there from the title; what Murray’s actually made, though, is a whole populated world, with at least a dozen memorable, instantly-recognizable characters, and, most critically, he’s made a world into which you enter, just reading it.
That, actually, is one of my favorite aspects of the book: Murray’s refreshingly un-MFA-ish in his catholicism of voice and taste, and he’ll regularly begin a scene with you, a scene in which you wonder about Ruprecht, Skippy’s roommate, or a scene in which you are playing a video game and listening to your mom argue with your dad…but then the scene shifts, and you find out that you’re Skippy, or you’re Skippy’s rival-for-Lori-affection Carl, or you’re someone else. It’s hard to overstate what this tricky pov-shifting Murray does so regularly and easily accomplishes. Sure, fundamentally, the reader gets into the story more completely or fully or whatever. However, the narrative slipperiness of it accomplishes a larger thematic need: everything gives way; nothing’s solid.
Slipperiness and/or duplicity, the way in which nothing stays just what it is: that’s where this book’s heart beats. Ruprecht, Skippy’s roommate? He’s a physics-obsessed genius, prattling on about M-theory and, eventually, building a dimension-travel device (the dimension-travel’s one of the most satisfying plotlines in the book; it’s eventually lost, and spawns a mission which, momentarily, is almost called Operation Immaculate Penetration), but, eventually, Ruprecht’s Ruprect-ness slips fully away as he gets crushed once too often and gets lost, depressed, whatever, eating donuts and refusing to properly take part in a classroom (“A hydrogen atom has two dads, the main export of Russia is C sharp, Jesus instructs us to diffract sunlight“). Skippy himself: alive or dead (plus also: should he be on the swim team or not? Does Lori, the frisbee-girl hottie he’s into, really like him or not? Is that some weird love-level ruse?).
This stuff’s endless, page after page. There’s Howard the Coward, a former Seabrook student and now a history teacher, a feckless thumbhead whose convictions end up just as compromised as everyone else’s. There’s Father Green, a priest who’s not nearly as bad as the reader fears (that Fr. Green turns out to be one of the most compelling, strong-of-conviction folks in the book is not only significant, but it’s fucking awesome at a narrative level: Murray gets to offer the reader some adult who’s got some Code he’ll not break, yet the reader can’t help but understand Loud and Clear just what such a code will cost). There’s Tom the swim coach, who suffered an accident while a student at Seabrook, and who therefore was, in that accident, knocked from the athletic-star path he was on, and who is all sorts of compelling in this book in the sneakiest of ways. There’s The Automator, the temporary head of the school, and he might actually be the only non-slippery character in the cast: he’s a dic at the start and he’s a dick at the end, and what transpires between start to finish are increasingly awe-inducing levels of dickness reached on the part of the man. There’s Carl, the budding psychopath who is just terrifying, terrifying, the blackest-souled character I’ve read in years.
There is, most critically, Dennis, Geoff, and Mario, the three who, with Ruprecht and Skippy, make up the core group of the book, and it is through these three characters that most of us will sniff Jest traces: you know exactly who these boys are (even if they’re cartoonish at times, which they are)—you know Dennis, the cynic, the comically acidic prick of each scene, and you know Mario, the sex-obsessed Italian who’s carried a lucky condom in his wallet for three years, and you know poor, sloppy, earnest Geoff, who wants more than anything to believe in the world as a place in which good things happen to good people, and bad follows bad.
Which, of course, is the definition of a coming-of-age book—notions of good/bad and causality get challenged, shifted, clarified, beaten, etc. What’s amazing about Skippy Dies is, depending on how long an answer you want, one of two things. First, for brevity, what’s amazing about Skippy Dies is everything. However, if you’re looking for a longer, more nuanced version: Second, what’s amazing about Skippy Dies is how, as each character toggles and shifts, as each bit of innocence is lost of yearned for or destroyed or mutilated, as each drug’s ingested or beating administered, the book again and again wrestles with notions of going back: of snatching that innocence back from experience, of retrieving that former self once disaster’s forced fundamental shifts. That the book allows, not a once, no easy answers isn’t just a testament to Murray’s skill as a writer, but as a story-teller, as someone who understands how powerfully precious such a full, thorough, human story he’s got, and how great his responsibility to do it full moral and artistic justice. As if it wasn’t obvious: he’s succeeded, wildly, gasp-inducingly. Read Skippy Dies as soon as you can: page-for-page, there’s more magic in this book than any other I’ve read this year.