Skippy lives - if only the judges agreed


Nothing will compensate for the non-appearance on the list of Irish writer Paul Murray’s comic tour de force, ‘Skippy Dies’, writes EILEEN BATTERSBYLiterary Correspondent

WHAT COULD have been a triumphant Man Booker shortlist is instead dead on arrival through the shock omission of Skippy Dies, Dublin writer Paul Murray’s profound master class in the art of dark comedy. Although four of the six titles were predicted nominations, nothing, not even the deserved inclusion of the gifted South African Damon Galgut will compensate for the non-appearance of Murray’s comic tour de force.

When the list was published yesterday featuring Ireland’s Emma Donoghue for Room, former double winner Peter Carey and Tom McCarthy’s C, the only quiver of excitement was noting the welcomed space for Galgut’s limpidly beautiful In A Strange Room, and that veteran British novelist Howard Jacobson had eased in ahead of Rose Tremain.

Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, a fraught Caribbean historical romance, in which a defiant survivor tells her story with some asides from her son, completes the selection.

Jacobson’s novel The Finkler Questionis funny, far more amusing than the much-hyped C, but few comic novels published this, or any year, could hope to approach the flair, originality and sustained narrative virtuosity of Murray’s inspired second novel with its wide-ranging appeal and honourable echoes of the US master William Gaddis.

Sentence for sentence, Murray out-writes Carey and Jacobson while effortlessly exposing the many shortcomings of McCarthy’s C. Most Man Booker watchers expected Donoghue’s Room, an important novel, the story of a mother and child who draw on imagination as a means of surviving imprisonment, to make the final six, but Skippy Diesis the novel that, once it was longlisted – and in the absence of Jon McGregor’s Even the Dogs– looked the most obvious winner.

Previously shortlisted for the Whitbread First novel Award with An Evening of Long Goodbyes(2003), Murray (35) took seven years to write Skippy Dies. It was time well spent. His huge book, twice the length of Cand a hundred times superior, is set largely in an expensive south Dublin boys’ school, in which the boarders are an eccentric minority. Seabrook College “looks after its own”, as the pompous, slightly crazed acting principal reiterates throughout, which explains why several second-rate staff members are old boys. Into this heaving atmosphere of teenage bravado and naivety, shadowed by adult failure, returns another old boy, Howard Fallon, after a brief and disastrous stint as an investment banker.

Fallon, at 28, still stalked by an act of cowardice, is experiencing all his nightmares come true as he battles to interest his menacing charges in the human side of the Great War, while in Skippy, Murray has created an unusual romantic hero, a vulnerable nice guy with a talent for swimming and a crippling burden of sorrow. His room mate is Ruprecht, a pudgy, doughnut-eating boy genius. Murray steers his large, colourful cast through an intelligently complex, often philosophical and blatantly topical narrative of voices and gestures.

In common with McGregor’s brilliant tale of drugged-out misfits in present-day Britain, Murray has evoked the now of contemporary Dublin youth, albeit in the more privileged sectors. This is a huge comic novel with an equally hefty serious novel battling to get out. Murray balances the laughter and the tears. Neil Jordan is already working on the screenplay; a great Irish novel looks set to be a great Irish movie. Pity the Man Booker panel overlooked an exceptional book about society as currently being lived. It achieves the impossible: Murray is explaining teenagers to teenagers and the rest of us to ourselves.

There is no doubt that Donoghue’s Roommust emerge as a strong contender as one of two women on a shortlist of three historical novels. Roomseethes with the fears, injustices and courage of victims who refuse to be beaten. It is inspiring.

If courage and pathos can decide the Man Booker, Donoghue will win. Galgut, shortlisted in 2003 with The Good Doctor,is an artist of rare sensibility and In A Strange Roomis about a quest which is universal, the search for love and for identity. It is a gentle human work, with none of the loquacious theatricality of Carey’s lively period yarn, Parrot and Olivier in America, or the lushness of Levy. Whatever the outcome on October 12th, Skippy Dies, the most assured Irish comic novel since At Swim-Two-Birds, will live and live.

Booker shortlist: what the ‘Irish Times’ critics thought

Room by Emma Donoghue:“Part childhood adventure story, part adult thriller, Room is above all the most vivid, radiant and beautiful expression of maternal love I have ever read. Emma Donoghue has stared into the abyss, honoured her sources and returned with the literary equivalent of a great Madonna and Child. This book will break your heart. Declan Hughes

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey:“There is, mind you, a loss of impetus in the novel’s midsection. But there’s also the soft satisfaction of a thaw between the two main characters, and, in its final act, Parrot and Olivier in America reveals itself to be a sneaky little fable about the tenacity of the hustling artist, and how the old roles of master and servant remake themselves in the new light of democracy. Peter Murphy

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut:“It is the honesty that consolidates this thoughtful, intelligent, cohesively human book. Galgut, ever the wanderer, always the seeker, is here at his most deliberate; as intent on finding meaning as on asking questions. Eileen Battersby

C by Tom McCarthy:“It is as if McCarthy has no interest in character and tolerates characterisation as a means of demonstrating his talent for mildly amusing dialogue. . . Why read it at all when Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow still seems so much more inventive, so much more convincing – and funnier? Eileen Battersby

The Long Shot by Andrea Levy:The Long Songis not, as I had feared, a dark and accusing novel bound to elicit guilt or shame. It is not a discourse on the atrocities of slavery, nor a whip for white readers to lash themselves with. The Long Songis an inspiring, optimistic and beautifully written tale of one spirited woman’s emancipation. Amanda Smyth

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson:“Fast-moving, wry and politely burlesque, The Finkler Questionposes many questions. It is quite a performance, at times reading as a poor man’s Saul Bellow, and such a comparison is more praise than criticism. There are many one-liners and laughs out loud, yet an awareness of threat is ever present. Eileen Battersby