In Ireland, small talk is not what it was. For centuries, Irish people chatted idly about the weather, then, for one crazy decade, it was difficult to buy a pint of milk without being invited to give an opinion on property prices. Now it’s the ever-worsening recession that is inescapable. “How is it in Longford?” novelist Paul Murray asks, as he waits for his decaf coffee, in one of the countless upmarket cafes that sprang up in Dublin during the boom. My Midlands hometown is typical of much of Ireland: boarded-up housing estates, spending cuts, redundancies, public anger. “Yep, it’s the same up here,” he says, shaking his head wistfully.
Murray, a fresh-faced 35-year-old, started writing Skippy Dies – his wonderful, dark, comic, Man Booker-longlisted second novel – seven years ago, when his native land was in thrall to a credit-fuelled spending bonanza. “It was such a selfish, narcissistic place then. Everything was lost in a psychosis of spending. The amount of kitchens that were put in on our street was incredible. Everyone got a new one – except us. We probably brought prices in our neighbourhood down by €80,000!”
In person, Murray’s anger at Ireland’s political classes is barely contained, but anyone picking up Skippy Dies expecting a polemical rant against Celtic Tiger consumerism will be sorely disappointed. Set in Seabrook College, a traditional Catholic boarding school in a posh Dublin suburb, the country’s “economic miracle” provides only the haziest of backdrops for the story of Ruprecht “Van Blowjob” Van Doren, an overweight 14-year-old mathematical whizz kid and string theory devotee, and his reticent, thoughtful best friend, Daniel “Skippy” Juster.
The book opens with the death foretold in its title and the succeeding 650-plus pages deal with the events leading up to Skippy’s tragic passing during an ill-advised doughnut-eating competition. As a panoramic view of public-school life, Skippy Dies is both hilarious and perspicacious, but to describe it as a “teenage comedy” fails to do justice to the sprawling world Murray has created. Here myriad, seemingly disconnected, themes – including cosmology, Ireland’s role in the first world war, quantum mechanics, Robert Graves, fairy tales and child abuse – all coalesce into a fast-paced, coherent narrative that zings with originality and invention.
A rag-tag cast of characters stalk the halls of Seabrook; porn-obsessed adolescents, lustful French teacher Father Green (“Old Pere Vert”), acting principal Greg “The Automater” Costigan, and his ill-fated history teacher Howard Fallon. Dubbed Howard the Coward by his unswervingly prescient pupils, the failed City banker and Seabrook old boy’s doomed dalliance with beautiful supply teacher Aurelie McIntyre provides many comic highlights.
Murray could almost pass for a slightly older version of Howard. Pale-skinned, blue-eyed, he wears his sandy-brown hair in an unruly mop; his slow, considered speech is peppered with scholarly references (Barthes, Nietzsche, the Second World War). “No, I’ve never been a teacher,” he says, looking surprised when I ask if the novel’s stilted staff-room interaction is based on insider knowledge. “I think I lack the ability to intimidate or project an air of imminent violence that you need to succeed as a teacher.”
Raised in affluent south Dublin, Murray attended Blackrock College, one of Ireland’s most illustrious secondary schools, and his experiences there provided ample inspiration for Skippy Dies. “I’ve seen what a class of 30 boys can do. They are able to pinpoint a person’s weak spot and just take them apart. It’s frightening,” he shudders slightly, eyes looking down at the table guiltily.
After terrorising teachers at Blackrock, Murray read English at Trinity College, Dublin, returning to his alma mater for his debut novel, the Whitbread-nominated An Evening Of Long Goodbyes. An energetic journey through modern Ireland seen through the eyes of a rich college drop-out, his first book’s success bought him the time and space to concentrate on an even bolder follow-up.
“When I finished the first book I thought to myself, ‘I’m free of a lot of the pressures that most writers have. I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have children. Now’s the time to go for it.’” Only, in 2003, Paul Murray had no idea just how big his second novel was going to be – in every sense.
The first draft of Skippy Dies clocked in at well over 1000 pages, a length even his literary hero Thomas Pynchon would balk at. “Initially my editor would suggest changes to the manuscript,” Murray says of the process of whittling down the original text. “Then one day, about six months before it came out, I’d a really bad hangover and I decided to just sit down and read it from beginning to end. It was over 900 pages at that stage and it just wasn’t working. By the end of the day I had got rid of 250 pages.”
The novelist’s swingeing editorial axe had the desired effect: Skippy Dies was published in February of this year to near universal critical acclaim, with Ireland’s foremost director, Neil Jordan, quickly taking out the film option. Murray also makes his debut at the Edinburgh International Book Festival later this month. And then, of course, there is the nomination for that literary prize …
“It was really, really strange and totally unexpected, to be perfectly honest,” he remarks of his appearance on the recently announced Man Booker longlist. An outsider for the prize proper – at least according to the bookies – the nomination has, nevertheless, given Skippy Dies something of a commercial kiss of life. “It is like a second birth for the book. People who never looked at it before are looking at it now. I would normally get about three emails a day but since the nomination there has been lots of interest.”
In the notoriously ego-driven world of literary fiction, Paul Murray is that rarest of beasts, a genuinely bashful writer. He shies away from praise of his work, and openly talks about the kind of self-doubts that plague most novelists, but which few would admit to. “No matter what you do as a writer, you’re always afraid that you’re going to run out of things to say,” Murray, who is currently working on novel number three, explains. “I think you’re always haunted by that fear.”
One worry that preys less and less on his mind is the place of the writer-as-artist in his home city. “For so long it felt that if you wanted to work as an artist in Dublin, you had to accept that you would never feel financially secure, you would never be able to own a house. You were forced to live in a society in which a really large chunk were being excluded,” says Murray, who recently moved from the middle-class suburb of Ranelagh in the south of the city to working-class Stoneybatter on the opposite side of the Liffey.
After more than two hours in conversation, we also decide to relocate to a nearby hotel for – predictably enough – a pint of Guinness. Sitting with his back to a row of pristine book-filled shelves in the library bar, Murray looks more comfortable than he has all day.
“I definitely find it easier to live as an artist in Dublin now. For a while you felt like such an outsider, the culture was so much about money and hedonism.” He pauses for a moment, taking a sip of his stout. “Thankfully that’s changing now.”
Skippy Dies is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton at £12.99. Paul Murray appears alongside Simon Rich on August 19 as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Piece first appeared in the Sunday Herald, August 16