Skippy DiesSkippy Dies recounts the exploits of a group of fourteen year-old Irish boys at Seabrook Catholic boarding school. The titular Skippy, innocent and hopeful but deeply troubled, and his fat, incredibly nerdy friend Ruprecht take centre stage. Then there’s the colourful supporting cast – Italian ‘ladies man’ Mario, sarcastic Dennis, clownish Geoff, and Niall (who always gets cast as the heroine in school plays) round out Skippy’s gang. Carl and Barry are their villainous schoolmates – local psychopaths, bullies and drug dealers. Lori is the beautiful object of Skippy’s affection from the neighbouring girls’ school. In the midst is Howard Fallon, Seabrook alumnus and disgraced stockbroker, returned as a teacher of First World War history. He’s confused and broken but he’s a bright spark of humanity amongst the Seabrook staff. Skippy Dies is as much Howard’s story as it is the boys’.

The rest of the teachers and priests are, at best, incompetent grotesques straight out of an adults-only version of a Roald Dahl kids’ book, always failing to understand the delicate nature of growing up. Acting Principal Greg Costigan’s only interest is in taking his place in history as Principal of a prestigious school, only paying attention to his students if they threaten to damage Seabrook’s fine reputation. The Principal, Father Desmond Furlong, is ill and Greg sees only a PR opportunity and, rather gleefully, organises the Father Desmond Furlong Memorial Concert – before the Father’s even dead. It’s this exaggeration of absurdity and witty verve that mark Skippy Dies as a great comic novel.

In the opening scene Skippy dies. The rest of the novel recounts the lead-up to his death. The sudden death of an unknown teenage boy during a doughnut eating competition is horrifying yet inappropriately, darkly comical. But then you get to know Skippy, and you care about him. I found myself wishing that what had been written could magically change, that Skippy doesn’t have to die, that someone would, alternate universe-style, do something differently to change the course of history. People do notice that Skippy’s in trouble, Howard kindly but awkwardly tries to ask him how he’s going, but to no avail. And so, despite being hysterically funny, Skippy Dies is haunted by Skippy’s death.

Paul Murray has written a novel that’s quirky, geeky, and a perfectly balanced combination of crass and sweet. One moment Mario is deciding how many condoms to bring to a school dance (probably a box or two just to be sure), then Howard is having a philosophical pub conversation about the quantum mechanical explanation versus Einstein’s theory of relativity and how it relates to feeling like his life has no overarching narrative. Skippy Dies is also a love story, encompassing all its permutations and perversions. It chronicles the grand tradition of boys falling for girls that are beautiful but completely wrong for them. There’s Skippy falling in love for the first time with Lori, but she’s already mixed up with Carl. While Howard’s wooing of haughty substitute teacher Aurelie is just the grownup version, proving that wisdom doesn’t automatically come with age.

Skippy Dies evokes memories of school and youth; the pranks played on teachers, the schemes concocted. The boys’ largely inept adventures actually made me laugh out loud, which I find is rare for a book. It reminded me of a sweeter, more intelligent, more emotionally affecting version of The Inbetweeners (lots of hilarious, crude, cringe inducing talk about having sex with girls, yet very little action). Or I thought of Skins, only funnier. Skippy and his friends deal with drug abuse, teen pregnancy, death, self-harm, anorexia and sexual assault. All the ‘big issues’ are there but it doesn’t feel fake or preachy. When it comes to coming-of-age tales Skippy Dies is in a class of its own.

Skippy Dies begs to be reread. It’s so clever and multifaceted but without being condescending or pretentious. Murray made me feel like esoteric string theory and First World War history are actually not just relevant but absolutely integral to understanding real life. It’s much more than a comic novel. It’s a novel about life, encompassing all its pain and its absurdities. Simply brilliant.