Skippy Dies – Paul Murray

This review is not only the hardest I have had to do because of the books length, but also because it concerns the best book I have reviewed so far, and I want to do it justice. That is not to take anything away from those other books that I have genuinely enjoyed, but as far as plot, originality and writing skills go, there can be no comparison to Paul Murray’s wonderful, Skippy Dies.

The book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010 and shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Novel Award, justifiably so. Well perhaps it did not gain full justification for how great it is; I have not read all the other books in the categories, but for it to not have been a winner there must have been some impressive opposition. It is set in a prestigious Catholic Irish boarding school called Seabrook College and primarily follows the lives of best friends, Daniel ‘Skippy’ Juster and Ruprecht Van Moren. The catch being that the novel opens with Skippy and Ruprecht having a doughnut eating contest, when Skippy drops off his chair and, not choking, dies whilst writing on the floor in doughnut jam ‘Tell Lori.’

skippy

Rewinding, the Seabrook story is unravelled through the eyes of countless characters, who Murray flits in between seamlessly, sometimes between paragraphs let alone chapters. This is not confined to children either, the story flows in other directions as we see events through the eyes of teachers like Howard ‘the coward’ and the mysterious Father Green,  whose own backstory’s are as intriguing as the plot itself; Howard’s past interwoven in the tale. Having gone to a Catholic boarding school in England myself, also run by monks, there are interesting similarities to be drawn from this book – good and bad- and so anyone in the same position should find this equally as interesting.

As I’ve reached the topic I’ll continue. One of the reasons the book works so well is each character’s backstory is explored and developed so well that we really understand and appreciate their emotional state, and the reasoning behind any actions they might take. Murray leaves no stone uncovered as he reveals his characters’ pasts, family lives, and current issues. It allows us to begin to understand what each character is going through so that we aren’t left wondering why they are doing what they do.

Murray’s writing itself is excellent, thorough and stylish. He at once can be comic and tragic, tender when explaining life’s harshities, and downright dark. This is also where he succeeds so well; his ability to capture the teenage chat and banter. It would be easy for the dialogue between the group of boys to feel fake and contrived but this is never the case. At times it is carefree and loose but when he is delving into the darker parts, exploring drugs and prescription pill problems, it is hard and unforgiving.  As is the book itself and its subject matter, some of the issues are very sensitive and the boldness with which Murray tackles them is commendable. It is plastered all over the book and any reviews written how funny yet tragic the book is and I’m just the next person to say it, but it really has to be said. It can be hilarious and tear wrenching. The format he uses is also daring, and it works.  It is a risk to give the game away in your title and first chapter that the main character dies, but he executes the plot so well around it that you almost forget what is coming. But not quite… Knowing all the way through what devastation is waiting is very sad, because all the efforts and problems Skippy has are ultimately in vein, or simply unimportant.

Having earlier used Howard as an example praising Murray, to be slightly critical, for me it was when his problems and life were being explored that the book lost some of its pace, especially towards the end. I found him to be the hardest character to engage with and couldn’t find myself caring for him. That said, his character arc is very good… The same goes for Ruprecht, even though he is a main character and essential to the plot, I never really engaged with him as much as some other characters. However when his scientific experimenting is in full swing, it is jovial and shows the boys’ teenage camaraderie very well. But because there are so many characters, you are able to find your favourites and welcome it when the chapter concerns them; though admittedly it can be annoying having to wait for your favourite character to get a go.

Length is always going to be a discussed issue here too. At 660 pages it is not a quick, light read, but that shouldn’t put you off because it really is so brilliantly written. Sure, it could have done with 100 pages being knocked off but I suppose that would have compromised the books integrity to an extent. And I have read that Murray’s initial draft came in at about 1000 pages so we should be grateful that much got chopped off anyway. Once you get into it, the length won’t really come into your mind so just get into it and immerse yourself in the brilliantly created world of Seabrook. I’ll definitely be checking out more of Paul Murray, but for now, if you have the time and willpower, I really recommend this for anyone looking for some high grade modern fiction

★★★★★

You can buy it from Amazon here

Big Sur – Jack Kerouac

I know, another Kerouac review. But I did give fair warning… And his collection is one which deserves careful consideration, as I’ve said before there is so much more to Jack Kerouac than On The Road. In fact, know anything about Kerouac and you’ll know that it was On The Road that ruined the man, left him unable to leave the house because of his fame and unwanted title ‘King of the Beats.’ But this was never something he wanted, all he ever wanted was to be a great American novelist and here we arrive at the point in Kerouac’s life when he escapes to Big Sur, running from the world, and lost in a sea of depression and alcoholism.

The last Kerouac book I read being Desolation Angels, I was very saddened by the change in nature of the man from the free spirited individual travelling across America in On the Road. It was very clear that depression was beginning to take hold of him and it was upsetting to read about. What I had no idea was how much worse it would get. Big Sur is Kerouac struggling to stay alive and function in simple human capacities he is so badly in the grip of depression. I don’t say this lightly but it is one of the saddest books I have ever read. And this is certainly because it is real, it is not a sad fictional story but a true tale of a man battling with severe problems. This poignant passage sadly shows the extent of his daily problems:

‘Any drinker knows how the process works: the first day you get drunk is okay, the morning after means a big head but so you can kill that easy with a few more drinks and a meal, but if you pass up the meal and go on to another night’s drunk, and wake up to keep the toot going, and continue on to the fourth day, there’ll come one day when the drinks wont take effect because you’re chemically over-loaded and you’ll have to sleep it off but cant sleep any more because it was alcohol itself that made you sleep those last five nights, so delirium sets in – Sleeplessness, sweat, trembling, a groaning feeling of weakness where your arms are numb and useless, nightmares, (nightmares of death) …’

jack kerouac

There is more though and it is gets worse. Kerouac feels like ‘a silly stranger goofing with other strangers for no reason far away from anything that ever mattered to me whatever that was.’ The only way for him to restore any balance to his life is through drinking because ‘I begin to feel extremely low as soon as last night’s alcohol wears off.’ Even the alcohol which he believes to be saving him cannot, he is at such turmoil with himself that he suffers paranoia and hallucinations rendering him unable to have serious personal relationships. All the woman he has a ‘relationship’ with during the book wants to do is settle down and marry him but he is unable to provide anything more than the odd sexual encounter surrounded by episodes of severe hopelessness.

In terms of adventure there is not much to this book, so if you are looking for On The Road style thrills this is not the one for you. However if you want to delve deep into the psyche of the troubled man it will no doubt fascinate you. The one constant is the relationship with Cody (Neal Cassady) which remains strong, and although Kerouac may be at war with himself his adulation of Cody remains (mostly); perfectly demonstrated as he surprises Kerouac and ‘suddenly, boom, the door of the cabin is flung open with a loud crash and a sudden burst of sunlight illuminates the room and I see an Angel standing arm outstretched in the door! – It’s Cody!’

Kerouac (1)

Hints of classic Kerouac remain, but on the whole I feel this book to be more of a collector’s item, one which the fanatic should read but not the wannabe hipster longing to join in on conversations above your head. If this is you, then look elsewhere in the collection.

★★★★ Click here to buy Big Sur from Amazon

Desolation Angels – Jack Kerouac

‘It’s the beat generation, its béat, it’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat.’

Many are aware of the Beat Generation and its notoriety, but few know much else of it and its main characters, bar a name or two and that book… When reviewing Kerouac there is always the temptation to compare it to On the Road, however you have to be careful when doing so, because On the Road is certainly not the be all and end all of Kerouac. Sure it’s his most famous, and everyone’s heard of it, but it’s definitely not his best. Having said that though, Desolation Angels does merit certain comparisons to On the Road due to its road trip nature (in book two anyway).

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So the novel is split into two books and it opens with a melancholic Kerouac gazing at Mt Hozomeen in his role of fire look-out, lamenting over ‘the void.’ I should say that for a fan, the first few chapters are beautiful. Vintage Kerouac, typically written in his flowing spontaneous prose. But it does carry on in the same vein for some 70 pages and slowly begins to grate on you. This first part is taken directly from his journal of the time he spent on the mountain and this much is evident as it is very journal-like, but it does drag on for a little too long so that by the end we just want him off the bloody mountain and back in civilisation. Kerouac is at his best with forward momentum in his narratives, when he gets lost in thought and memories it can get a little weighed down. Discussing this with a friend, he raised an interesting point about juxtaposition and the first book being slow and the second frantic. I see what he was saying, maybe it was all part of the plan but I am inclined to disagree. This is because I know that Kerouac initially wanted book two to be published as a standalone novel, so it feels almost like two halves of different novels stuck together in order to fill a quota.

kerouac

That said, those are my only qualms. When he does get down it is brilliant. For anyone who loved On the Road, book two of Desolation Angels blows it out of the water. The pace picks up as he meets Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and eventually Bill Burroughs. But even with the ripened speed and the resumption of normal life Kerouac is still withdrawn but now it is all the more revealing as we learn why. Passages on his need for solitude and the ‘search for peace as an artist’ allow us into the mind of the man. One of the main things about this book that I enjoyed so much was how revealing it was into Jack Kerouac himself. It is a brutally honest and emotional work.

Kerouac, Ginsberg & Co. in Mexico

Kerouac, Ginsberg & Co. in Mexico

Book two is where the On the Road lovers will be satisfied. The drug taking (which is a lot more explicit than in On the Road), freight train hopping antics begin, and the freedom that a generation identified with is once again present as they travel around on a whim looking for kicks in Mexico, New York and Tangiers. But it is also in book 2 where his depression really takes over and by the end, the Jack Kerouac everyone thinks they know becomes a different man. The book has so much depth to it than, it is hugely meditative and telling of the depression and separation Kerouac felt from the ‘hipsters’ and indeed his own friends of many years. There is a particularly poignant passage describing his resentment of the Beat Generation, calling it ‘all an enormous drag’ and ‘to think that I had so much to do with it.’ But that is the brutal honesty you get out of this book as he lays all his feelings on the page. As saddening as it may be, it is fascinating.

All in all it is a great and enlightening read that is only irritating because it takes so long to get going. Even if by the time it does you’re having such a good time you’ve forgotten all about book one.

4_5_star_rating

Click here to buy Desolation Angels from Amazon

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