Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book Review: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

When I was in high school, the English department seemed to delight in forcing us to read books about dysfunctional prep school students. I expect Skippy Dies to make an appearance in the curriculum any day now, as it's the literary offspring of an unholy union of JD Salinger, John Irving, Pat Conroy, and John Knowles. Don't get me wrong; I really enjoyed reading it, but I couldn't help flashing back to my freshman year of high school, in which I contemplated my deep contempt for Holden Caulfield and each and every one of my classmates who identified with him (note: I was one of the smart, poor kids the school brought in to up the test score average, so my reaction to The Catcher in the Rye consisted of rolling my eyes and making the "world's tiniest violin" gesture repeatedly). Despite my best intentions towards being a good person, I tend to have pretty epic failures of empathy when people (real and fictional) who have lived thoroughly charmed lives start whining about their self-inflicted First World problems.

As such, I wasn't expecting to really enjoy Skippy Dies for the first fifty or so pages. While Skippy dies (during a donut eating contest!) in the first few pages, the subsequent chapters revert to a period of time several months prior to his death, introducing the reader to his whiny, milquetoast history teacher and his motley crew of outsider friends, neither of which inspired much enthusiasm on my part. The writing was very good, though, and the characters were just interesting enough to keep me reading. I'm very glad I did, because while the book starts out sort of slow, it ultimately develops into an amazing, multifaceted look at Skippy's sad, dysfunctional world that is nevertheless uplifting. Murray did an excellent job of keeping my curiosity about how and why Skippy dies piqued throughout the quite convoluted narrative. Despite their unfortunate resemblance to some of my more annoying high school classmates, I grew to care a great deal about many of the characters-- a true testament to how great a writer Murray is.

Very enjoyable. I'll probably read Murray's next novel. 4 out of 5 stars.

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