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At Swim, Two Boys

by Jamie O'Neill
643 pages,
ISBN: 0743207130


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Irish Love Story
by Stan Persky

Irish writer Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys is a book of glorious ambition. It is, at once, a thoroughly entertaining historical love story set in the time of the Irish uprising of 1916, the Great Irish Gay Novel to date, an engagement with much of 20th century Irish writing, a linguistic feast, and a presentation of transgressive sex that some Canadian parliamentarians would probably want banned.
The story behind the book also reads like a rags to riches literary fairytale. The 30-something-year-old O'Neill was working as a night porter in a psychiatric hospital in London, a job that allowed him to labour away in obscurity at a manuscript he'd been honing for almost ten years. Although At Swim, Two Boys is billed as a literary debut, in fact O'Neill had published two not particularly well-received earlier novels about a decade before, works which both publisher and author, for marketing and artistic reasons, are willing to regard as forgettable. The manuscript finished and having been passed on to an editor friend, O'Neill was on the job one night when a phone call came from across the ocean. It's the phone call every author is waiting for. At the other end was a literary agent informing O'Neill that a major New York publisher was offering something in the neighbourhood of a quarter-million dollars for the rights to publish the unknown writer's untested blockbuster. As one of the title characters in At Swim, Two Boys frequently exclaims, "What cheer, eh?" And the rest, as they say, is a history of press releases, blurbs, and enthusiastic reviews.
At its simplest level, At Swim is the story of two 16-year-old boys, Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle, who vow to swim, on Easter Sunday 1916, from Forty Foot, a gentleman's bathing spot on the Sandy cove coastal outskirts of Dublin, to the Muglins, a rocky island in the Irish sea a couple of miles offshore and, once there, to plant the flag in the name of Irish independence. In the several month course of trysting and training for the big swim, it's not only the romance of Ireland that develops, but a schoolboy romance as well. The raising of the flag is not the only affair of the heart that will be consummated on the rocky outcrop. And since Easter Monday 1916 turns out to be the moment of an ill-fated political uprising in Dublin, the adventures in the perilous waters will be followed by a bloody denouement in the even more perilous streets of Dublin.
If it sounds something like a tale from Boy's Adventure magazine, with the spicy addition of what many of us readers of that long-ago adolescent periodical always hoped for¨namely, teenaged sex between the male heroes¨well, at times, that's what At Swim is. But O'Neill's book is far more than a charming gay pornographic fantasy designed to raise the hackles of the prudish (although I should report that the sexual descriptions, while hardly sensational, are anatomically accurate and emotionally hot). At Swim is also a believable, engrossing portrait of Irish political history, the social classes of Dublin from slum-dwellers to aristocrats of the manor, the topography of sea and city, and the ideas of the times¨ideas about religion, the independence of Ireland and, more arguably, homosexuality.
In addition to Doyler and his "pal o' my heart" Jim, the book is undergirded by a more complex cast of characters. First among them is Anthony MacMurrough, heir to an Irish revolutionary tradition and former Oscar Wilde-like inmate of an English prison (having served time for the same miscreance as Wilde), who, recently returned to the manse, soon beds, on a monetary basis, young Doyler. O'Neill's daring move here, the one that raises hackles, is to suggest that Doyler is not merely pragmatic about the rent-boy arrangement, but a willing participant.
There's also MacMurrough's grande dame Aunt Eva, an aristocratic gun-runner whose old-maiden heart pines for the homosexual Irish revolutionary, Roger Casement. Finally, there are the boys' fathers, former mates in a Dublin Regiment¨Arthur Mack, a snobbishly aspiring shopkeeper, and Mick Doyle, down-on-his-luck and dying of tuberculosis. Various priests, servants, and odd relations fill in the gaps, making for a solid social panorama.
At Swim begins with the perambulations of Arthur Mack in the Dublin outskirt of Glasthule, "homy old parish, on the lip of Dublin Bay," noodling along on his daily errands one spring day in 1915. From the very start, the sub-textual engagement with the landmarks of Irish literature is apparent. The title of O'Neill's book is a play on Flann O'Brien's renowned At Swim-Two-Birds. More obviously, readers of James Joyce's Ulysses will immediately hear echoes of the interior monologues of Leopold Bloom, Joyce's protagonist, on his walks through Dublin. Since much of the book is set at Forty Foot, in sight of the Martello tower and the water, where Joyce's Buck Mulligan took his morning swim in the "snotgreen... scrotumtightening sea," there's no avoiding the shadow of the master.
As O'Neill has remarked in interviews, "Joyce stands muttering over the shoulder of all Irish writers, I fear." As for the Joycean landscape at Forty Foot, O'Neill wryly concedes, "It's asking for trouble, really." The triumph of the subtext is that O'Neill's engagement with Joyce and much else in Irish literature comes off not as mere pastiche, but as a genuine echo of a way of securing the detailed reality of the period. Although critics of O'Neill have complained of his "stage Oirish," the book's lush language is vivid, breathless as the lads plunging into that "freezer of a sea," and true to the tumbling rhythm of the doomed events it chronicles. If the texture of the prose is a test of this heady novel, it passes with flying rainbow colours. In the end, the appropriate literary comparison is not so much with Joyce and company, but with compatriot Roddy Doyle's recent novel, A Star Called Henry, which takes on many of the same issues and settings as O'Neill's At Swim. Suffice to say, as a measure of his accomplishment here, it's O'Neill that comes off best.
All historical novels raise the problem of the versimilitude of their relation to actual history¨in this case, a matter of both political and sexual history. O'Neill's Doyler is a Red Hand-badge wearing young socialist; his counterpart Jim is a liberal in love. Around them are characters standing in for the various shades of Irish nationalism: Volunteers, Citizens' Army, and Gaelic revivers. For those who want to be reassured that O'Neill's got it pretty much right, the definitive historical text is R.F. Foster's Modern Ireland, 1600-1972 (1988). Whether gay Irish young men articulated their desires as they do in At Swim, Two Boys is, of course, more problematic. Here, I think the test is simply plausibility. Given the actual existence of Wilde, Casement, and the homosexual practices between classes and among young men marching off to the slaughter of World War I, O'Neill has enough to go on to make a brave, romantic run of it.
"Gray morning dulled the bay," O'Neill writes in a signature passage. "Banks of clouds... Swollen spumeless tides. Heads that bobbed like floating gulls and gulls that floating bobbed like heads. Two heads. At swim, two boys." It's a memorable plunge. ˛

Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in Vancouver, and is the author of numerous books, including Buddy's: Meditations on Desire. His most recent book, co-authored with John Dixon, On Kiddie Porn 2001), won a Donner Prize as best Canadian book on public policy.
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