Monday, April 4, 2011

The 2011 Tournament of Books and Skippy Dies

Although I've dipped into it now and then over the years, I've never followed the Tournament of Books all the way through until this year. This seems somewhat ironic, given that I've only read one of the sixteen books in this year's tournament, but no matter. Since 2005, John Warner, Kevin Guilfoyle and other folks at The Morning News have put 16 books head to head, through the preliminary round, the quarter finals, semi-finals and the zombie round (in which previously knocked out books come back to life and challenge the last two books left), and then finally, of course, the finals, in which one book wins the coveted Rooster for the year.

It is a somewhat ridiculous conceit, of course, having books knock each other off in direct competition, but it's a fascinating one, and this year's tournament has been a great read, even for someone who hasn't read 15/16 of the titles discussed.

(For a much clearer view of the brackets, go to the main Tournament of Books page and click on "View the 2011 Brackets.")

Today was the final, in which Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad vanquished (barely) Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which had been marching seemingly inexorably to the top spot. (Goon Squad, in fact, was knocked out in the semi-finals (by Freedom, in one of the less satisfying bouts of judging) but resurrected in the Zombie Round.) One new judge and all of the previous judges voted, and Goon Squad won 9-8. I will admit to nearly holding my breath while reading the judges' decision, despite not having read either book. (I do have a copy of Goon Squad out of the library now, and I don't have a copy of Freedom, so that might be a sign of where my sympathies lie.)

Although this year's tournament is now over, I'd really recommend reading through it, not just the judges' write ups on each pair of books but also John Warner and Kevin Guilfoyle's commentary and the reader comments. As books moved through the tournament, the discussions around them grew and shifted in a kind of kaleidoscope effect, with each judge offering new perspective. Plus, I learned some handy new acronyms--WMFUN, for one. (That's "white male fuckup" novel, if you're wondering, the prime example in the tournament being James Hyne's Next.) If you're a bookish sort, it's a really great way to spend a bit of time with others of the same ilk, many smarter and more well read than you (well, me, at least.) As the tournament progressed, I actively looked forward to reading each day's commentary.

I'd like to give a shout 0ut to the one book on the list I did finish, Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, which, 3 + months into this year, is already one of my favorites.

I mentioned Skippy briefly last summer, soon after I bought it, but I saved it to read in India, knowing that India is always a good place for reading, especially long novels. And Skippy is definitely long--660 pages long, in fact. I started Skippy on the train from Dehradun to Varanasi, the so-called express train that actually made 39 stops between the two cities and took nearly 24 hours to arrive. I've been on longer train rides in India, but not recently, and this one was not one of my favorites (partly because I was cranky that the travel agent I'd needed to book my last minute ticket hadn't booked me a ticket on the actual express train that left the same night--and got to Varanasi with only 5 stops in a much shorter time). My compartment was comfortable enough, since I was in (relatively) luxurious 2 tier AC, but the windows were so dirty that it was hard to see anything out of them, and, almost worst of all, there was hardly any food. Sometimes trains stop at stations that are full of vendors selling all kinds of tasty morsels, but this train seemed to miss all of those stations, and the longer the train went on, the hungrier I got. (Though, since I always travel with snacks, I was not entirely unfortified.)

But despite the long hours, the dirty windows, my hunger pangs, I had Skippy, and I read the first third of the book on the train (after finishing the good-in-a-different-kind-of-way The Girl from Foreign, by Sadia Shepard). At first, as I got to know the boys at Seabrook College, a Dublin Catholic boarding school, and their teachers and more, I thought, "660 pages of this?" But it didn't take long for me to become hooked. Yes, it's true that Murray gives away a huge plot point on page 5. Skippy does die, in a doughnut eating contest with his friend Ruprecht van Doren, the fat genius, and at the beginning, when Skippy does die, you don't know who he is or why you should care that he's gone. But over the course of the next four hundred pages, you get to know Skippy and Ruprecht and all of their pals, plus their unhappy history teacher, Howard the Coward, and the lovely Lori from the girls' school next door, and Carl the psychopath and more. So when you return, chronologically to Skippy's death, it means much more, and you mourn along with the boys as they come to terms with his loss. Murray brings you into this fully realized world, yes, one full of 14 year old boys and thus a lot of 14 year old boy humor, but a full, rich, satisfying world, one you get invested in and don't want to leave, even after 660 pages.

I kept reading once I got to Varanasi, carrying the book with me to the cafe where I usually ate breakfast (in case the wireless was down), despite its unwieldiness, and Govindababa, the western saddhu, noticed this, and we chatted several mornings in a row about my progress until I finished a few days later. Usually, once I've read a fat book in India I leave it there, for a friend--or a stranger--to read after me. But when I left Varanasi, I didn't want to leave Skippy behind, so I packed it in my suitcase, and brought it back to Delhi and from there, back home, where it now sits on my bookshelf next to Murray's first novel, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, which I haven't read yet but certainly will.

The Tournament of Books introduced me to a lot of new books, some I'm interested in and a few I'm not, but it also reinforced how much I enjoyed Skippy Dies, and it was very satisfying to hear all the other Skippy fans pop up in the comments along the way. (Although Skippy lost to Goon Squad in the first round, it stayed eligible for the zombie round until almost the end.)

So, my advice is twofold. Go read through this year's Tournament of Books, over tea in the morning, perhaps, in leisurely fashion, or in one gulp, page after page, round after round, until the Rooster is won.

And when you have some time--over many cups of tea over many mornings, or all at once if you happen to have a 23 1/2 hour train ride ahead of you anytime soon--go find Skippy Dies and let Paul Murray take you amidst the boys of Seabrook College in Dublin, where, I hope, even after 660 pages, you will also be loathe to leave.