Set in Dublin, At Swim, Two Boys follows the year to Easter 1916, the time of Ireland's brave but fractured uprising against British rule. O'Neill tells the story of the love of two boys: Jim, a naive and reticent scholar and the younger son of the foolish aspiring shopkeeper Mr. Mack, and Doyler, the dark, rough-diamond son of Mr. Mack's old army pal. Doyler might once have made a scholar like Jim, might once have had prospects like Jim, but his folks sent him to work, and now, schoolboy no more, he hauls the parish midden cart, with socialism and revolution and willful blasphemy stuffed under his cap.
And yet the future is rosy, Jim's father is sure. His elder son is away fighting the Hun for God and the British Army, and he has such plans for Jim and their corner shop empire. But Mr. Mack cannot see that the landscape is changing, nor does he realize the depth of Jim's burgeoning friendship with Doyler. Out at the Forty Foot, that great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the scandalous nude, the two boys meet day after day. There they make a pact: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, Easter 1916, they will swim the bay to the distant beacon of Muglins Rock and claim that island for themselves.
Ten years in the writing, At Swim, Two Boys has already caused a sensation in England and Ireland, earning lavish praise for its masterful portrayal of class, tradition, and the conflict that has haunted Ireland for centuries. Jamie O'Neill's poetic and evocative storytelling makes him a natural successor to James Joyce and Flann O'Brien.
At its heart, At Swim, Two Boys is a tender and tragic love story that will resonate with all readers. But it is also a compelling and important work, a novel about people caught up in the tide of history -- set in a place and culture both unfamiliar and unforgettable.
Published last year in Great Britain, this novel has been compared to works by James Joyce (or Flann O'Brien, whose At Swim-Two-Birds the title plays on), but it has more in common with the film Chariots of Fire in its painterly depiction of male athleticism and relationships. The sheltered son of a pro-British shopkeeper, 16-year-old Jim develops a doting and eventually homosexual relationship with Doyler, a bright boy from an impoverished family, as the two train for an ambitious swim across Dublin Bay on Easter 1916, a date that happens to coincide with a planned Republican uprising. Both become entangled with McMurrough, scion of wealthy Irish gentry, who is back in Dublin following imprisonment in England for indecent behavior. Jim is too nave and Doyler too politically sophisticated for their years, while McMurrough is typecast as an Oscar Wilde figure. Still, these are rich characterizations, and together with the playfully rendered Irish dialect they outweigh the book's imperfections. O'Neill also offers gorgeous descriptions of the Dublin environs and remarkable details of the period. Recommended for most fiction collections. Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 27, 2002
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Excerpt from At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O'Neill
At the corner of Adelaide Road, where the paving sparkled in the morning sun, Mr. Mack waited by the newspaper stand. A grand day it was, rare and fine. Puff-clouds sailed through a sky of blue. Fair-weather cumulus to give the correct designation: on account they cumulate, so Mr. Mack believed. High above the houses a seagull glinted, gliding on a breeze that carried from the sea. Wait now, was it cumulate or accumulate he meant The breeze sniffed of salt and tide. Make a donkey of yourself, inwardly he cautioned, using words you don't know their meaning. And where's this paper chappie after getting to
In delicate clutch an Irish Times he held. A thruppenny piece, waiting to pay, rolled in his fingers. Every so often his hand queried his elbow -- Parcel safe Under me arm, his hand-pat assured him.
Glasthule, homy old parish, on the lip of Dublin Bay. You could see the bay, a wedge of it, between the walls of a lane, with Howth lying out beyond. The bay was blue as the sky, a tinge deeper, and curiously raised-looking when viewed dead on. The way the sea would be sloping to the land. If this paper chappie don't show up quick, bang goes his sale. Cheek of him leaving customers wait in the street.
A happy dosser was nosing along the lane and Mr. Mack watched with lenient disdain. Any old bone. Lick of something out of a can. Dog's life really. When he came to the street Mr. Mack touched a finger to his hat, but the happy dosser paid him no regard. He slouched along and Mr. Mack saw it puddling after, something he had spilt in the road, his wasted civility. Lips pursed with comment, he pulled, squeezing, one droop of his bush mustache.
"Oh hello, Mrs. Conway, grand day it is, grand to be sure, tip-top and yourself keeping dandy "
Nice class of lady, left foot, but without the airs. Saw me waiting with an Irish Times, twice the price of any other paper. They remark such things, the quality do. Glory be, I hope she didn't think -- his Irish Times dropped by his side -- Would she ever have mistook me for the paperman, do you think
Pages fluttered on the newspaper piles, newsboards creaked in the breeze. Out-of-the-way spot for a paper stand. Had supposed to be above by the railway station. But this thoolamawn has it currently, what does he do only creeps it down, little by little, till now he has it smack outside of Fennelly's--