The big dance, the hot teacher, awkward romances and menacing bullies: the tropes of high school coming-of-age stories are all present in Irish writer Paul Murray’s second novel, a comic chronicle of fictional Seabrook College, an all-boys Catholic school in the suburbs of Dublin. That is not to say the novel rings false, like some kind of Gaelic Saved by the Bell. Quite the opposite: Murray, with his knack for the teenage vernacular and sharp wit, has written a tremendously warm and funny novel that delves past the clichés while recognizing their appeal."No matter what we try to teach them about kings or molecules or trade models or whatever, civilization ultimatxely boils down to the same frenzied attempt to hump people. That the world, in short, is teenaged,"says a biology teacher to Howard Fallon, a history teacher known by the students as "Howard the Coward,"a nickname that has followed him all the way from his teenage days at Seabrook. In Skippy Dies, the awkwardness of adolescence never quite disappears, it simply gets masked by adult responsibilities. Seabrook staff members are constantly being reminded of past shortcomings and just how little they’ve progressed away from them, whether they recognize the signs or not. An alum DJ refuses to take requests at a school dance. Cliques form in the staff room. Teachers walk into the principal’s office with hangdog expressions, ready to be chewed out for their mistakes. But despite constant reminders of their own youth, the adults almost always underestimate the complexity of their students’ emotional lives. The 600-plus page Skippy Dies follows a number of such students. There is the ill-fated Skippy of the title, A-student Ruprecht Van Doren, Carl the disturbed bully and Lori, the popular girl burdened with unwanted male attention. Murray is quite adept at capturing the confusion and excitement of the teen years, with all of their crude non-sequiturs, hollow boasting and cryptic text messages. Many pages in the novel’s three books center around Ruprecht "Von Blowjob,"who, much to the chagrin of his friends, is obsessed with M-theory, a hopelessly complicated extension of string theory, through which he tries to comprehend the cruel cruelty of high school, where everyone is "old enough to have a decent understanding of how the world works, but young enough for their judgments to remain unfogged by anything like mercy or compassion." The students and staff at Seabrook are, as string theory tries to do, trying to reconcile the micro and the macro, that is to say, the minute emotional fluctuations of daily life and the grander arcs their lives have taken. That the story is set in Ireland, a real estate-obsessed country desperate to embrace its reputation as a modern economic powerhouse, a.k.a. the Celtic Tiger, and move away from a past weighed down by religion and folktales, is no mistake. The myriad stories all intersect at Skippy’s death, the tone getting darker and more introspective as the prose gets more disjointed and jarring, until everything breaks down and old roles and restraint disappear, and in the end not even string theory can explain why the characters feel the way they do or how they can fix it.