skippy dies on the first page of this book.
then there are 600 pages of buildup and aftermath.
it has been compared to Infinite Jest, which i can see, but i also feel it is a good companion-piece to The Instructions. all three of these books (IJ only in part) focus on adolescents who are in school/boarding school environments that use genuinely funny (as opposed to manipulative-funny) humor to offset the horrors of youth and its incipient discoveries. they all have elements of the absurd, of the near-slapstick spectacle, and each book’s action revolves around a troubled holden caulfield-type of character whose actions propel the narrative. in the instructions, the characters all revolve around gurion, and infinite jest, the characters satellite hal. but what further links all these books, to my mind, is the strength of the supporting characters.
i am trying not to digress too much into a discussion of the comparison-pieces, so i will try to focus on the characters in this one here.
mario is fantastic, in his would-be lothario role, and there is something that should be gross but in this book is very funny, about a bunch of virgin boys sitting around and talking/boasting about sex. it is like when tobias talks about “the clatter” of his wife’s breasts.
you just want to kind of pat them on the head, until you realize they are staring at your chest and you have to slowly back away.
dennis is another favorite of mine. he is so cynically realistic, so already-figured-it-out, you can’t help but feel sympathy for him and recognize that his acerbity is a response to what shiny youth-hope he has already shrugged off.
but the best are the scenes with all the boys together. their banter, their rapid-fire patter, the casually innocent homophobic remarks and endless dick-jokes of boys at that age, the “your mom” jokes, the giggling over the word “mound.” (okay, i giggled, too.)
standout moments: patrick “da knowledge” noonan and eoin “MC sexecutioner” flynn’s audition for the school concert. i spoil-tag it, because i think it is nice to have the option.View Spoiler » The boys mount the stage, gold chains clinking, and spend the next few moments slouching back and forth, mumbling mysteriously to themselves. Then, to an enormous, naked drumbeat that explodes from Sexecutioner’s ghettoblaster to rock the entire hall, they begin to bounce around the boards, making inscrutable hand signals, their vast trousers flapping about them like sails, and Knowledge grabs the mike: ‘I got X-ray EYES, but she’s wearin lead PANTS, so I got to get her BOOTY wi-‘
‘Next!’ The judgement issues summarily from the review panel before Sexecutioner has even had a chance to drop his first ‘motherfucker.’ For a moment, the boys remain rooted to the spot in ungangsta-like attitudes of woundedness, mocked by the drumbeat that is still thumping around them; then, unplugging the ghettoblaster, they clamber down and make the walk of shame to the exit.
‘What in God’s name was that?’ the Automator says as soon as they have left.
Trudy peers down at her clipboard. “original material.”
“Our old friend original material,” the Automator says grimly.
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which is funny enough, just in the wide-eyed belief that this material would be suitable for a concert at a catholic boy’s school, but the real hearttwist comes, for me, when the program(me) is announced:
‘Did we get in?’ Eoin ‘MC Sexecutioner’ Flynn asks anxiously, stuck at the back of the crowd examining the board.
Patrick ‘Da Knowledge’ Noonan scans the list again, then, scowling, turns away. ‘No.’
‘We didn’t?’ Eoin is shocked.
‘What did you expect, man?’ Patrick throws up his hands at him. ‘Take a look at the programme, it’s wall-to-wall Whitey!’
ah, the sweet optimism of youth. and the sweet racial dysmorphia, as both eoin and patrick are unhappily white themselves.
obviously the dance is another great moment, and what the dance devolves into, but those are the big show-stopping scenes. there are also amazing quiet scenes, like the fear of jelly. and more serious matters, like tom’s secret, and what it does to howard, and the criminal way it is handled by the school, and just the fact that the situation subverts expectations in a surprising way, and then allows those expectations to play out to a conclusion in a way which perpetrates those expectations to the public-at-large without justice. this makes no sense if you haven’t read the book, and probably maybe even no sense to you if you have, because i am trying to dance around the spoiler-flames here, and it’s too juicy to spoiler-tag, because i know you people are drawn to those like a trail of breadcrumbs.
but – god – for all its humor, this book is so freaking sad. it’s about all the Big Things, like how we never really know anybody, or appreciate the ones we should, about the disconnect that occurs between adolescence and adulthood, about the wide-eyed optimism of youth that slowly gets stripped away. about betrayal and the inability to confess, to communicate, to speak. this is probably where the connection to infinite jest is the strongest; the wounded shutting-down.
and then all the ways we try to cope with life: drugs, romance, grasping at straws, charity, music, science, cutting, anorexia, pregnancy – anything to try to feel or to escape. (also very IJ-y)
it would be a bleak little book if not for the sheer lyrical momentum of it. paul murray’s got a great sense of pacing, both in the unspooling of the story, and in the tonal pacing. it is never allowed to get too bleak or too frivolous – he manages the mood very well.
it’s true that the female characters in this book kind of get the short end of the stick. (this is not meant to be a “penis envy” joke) they are less characters as stand-ins for ideals, mostly just there to embody the robert graves-idea of the white goddess and the black goddess; their role is just to affect the male characters, but this doesn’t really hinder the story, unless you are someone for whom “the way females are represented” takes precedence over, you know, the story itself.
this is a great book, and one that is hard to review. it perfectly describes the conflicting teenage desires to grow up, while still clinging to brittle vestiges of innocence, and then flipsides it with the adult characters and their painfully-familiar nostalgia over their own lost youth, all in a bigger story about the search for truth in history and in present-day life.
there are so many elements i didn’t even get to touch on: celtic mythology, the dark shadow of carl, donuts, scary drug dealers, pop music tarts… i encourage you to read it and tell me what else i forgot to even mention.
oh, and spoiler: skippy dies.