The boarding-school novel has a long pedigree, from “David Copperfield” to “Harry Potter,” and Paul Murray (“An Evening of Long Goodbyes”) just wrote himself into the canon. “Skippy Dies” is a total knockout – and not just if someone throws this brick of a book at you. The title is no misnomer: Skippy, a 14-year-old student at Dublin’s Seabrook College, is dead by Page 5. Most writers work up to their tragedy; Murray opens with his, and then spends the next 650-odd pages making you care deeply about what happened to the 14-year-old boy and his friends, from his pudgy roommate, a budding mad scientist who wants to open portals to other worlds, to the girl Skippy loved.
Killing off a child is usually the fastest way to get me to put down a book, but there’s nothing manipulative or maudlin about Murray’s writing. “Skippy Dies” is funnier, smarter, and more compassionate than the setup might lead a reader to expect. (I did, however, want to rinse my eyes with bleach after any chapter written from the viewpoint of Carl, Skippy’s thuggish rival, a drug dealer with a comprehensive knowledge of Internet porn.)
Murray weaves in everything from poet and historian Robert Graves and James Joyce (it is Dublin, after all) to experimental physics and zombies (they are teenage boys, after all), and makes every thread count. It’s only gradually that a reader realizes that all the brilliance and hilarity is camouflaging a blistering anger. Murray doesn’t pull any punches, from the tragic opener – set, at of all places, a doughnut shop – to the breezily scathing ending.