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At Swim Two Boys Praised as “a work of wild vaulting ambition and achievement” by Entertainment Weekly Jamie O’Neill’s first novel invites comparison to such literary greats as James Joyce Samuel Beckett and Charles DickensSet during the year preceding the Easter Uprising of 1916—Ireland’s brave but fractured revolt against British rule— At Swim Two Boys is a tender tragic love story and a brilliant depiction of people caught in the tide of history Powerful and artful and ten years in the writing it is a masterwork from Jamie O’NeillJim Mack is a naïve young scholar and the son of a foolish aspiring shopkeeper Doyler Doyle is the rough diamond son—revolutionary and blasphemous—of Mr Mack’s old army pal Out at the Forty Foot that great jut of rock where gentlemen bathe in the nude the two boys make a pact Doyler will teach Jim to swim and in a year on Easter of 1916 they will swim to the distant beacon of Muglins Rock and claim that island for themselves All the while Mr Mack who has grand plans for a corner shop empire remains unaware of the depth of the boys’ burgeoning friendship and of the changing landscape of a nation If Russia has Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina Ireland has Jamie O’Neill and At Swim Two Boys The milieu of Anna was Russia few decades before the Russian Revolution in 1917 that abolished the Tsarist autocracy and installed Soviet Union O’Neill’s milieu was that of Ireland during the 1916 Easter Rising whose aim was to end the British rule and establish the Irish RepublicThe comparison does not end there If Tolstoy has Anna and Levin as characters to illustrate or witness the transformation of Russian from that of traditional Asian to modern Western O’Neill has two or three gay men lovers Jim Mack and Doyler Doyle and the Oscar Wilde clone Anthony MacMurrough to depict how political turmoil can seep through the lives of Irish people regardless of their sexuality The way O’Neill used gay men to drive home this point is something that I thought to be truly commendable Only gifted writers would think of taking this risk I’ve read a number of good novels Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet etc with homosexuality as its main motif but most of them play on the emotional aspect of being gay as if being a homosexual is something that is an aberration that needs to be examined or gawked at so it must be highlighted to delight or catch the interest of the readersO’Neill’s portrayal of the lives of the three gay men was honest and not pretentious The characters were open but were not attention getter There was no big fuss about their sexuality as if being gay was widely accepted in Ireland predominantly a Roman Catholic country during that time 1916 1917 Not sure what O’Neill’s intent was but the way homosexuality was depicted here was like how Gertrude Stein did it in The Autobiography of Alice Toklas where hers and Toklas’s homosexual love was just like a heterosexual one When in fact it should have been an issue since homosexuality during those times was not yet as open as it is now Example of this treatment was the subtle depiction Evelyn Waugh did in his opus Brideshead Revisited or Christopher Isherwood in his seminal work Goodbye to Berlin You know that there are same sex lovers in the story but you have to read between the lines and pay close attention to the narration to be able to detect it At Swim Two Boys 2001 is about two 16 yo Irish boys who love each other and they make a pact to swim across a sea from a nudist beach to a distant island that they want to claim for themselves as proof of their love for each other Although it sounds cheesy the morning they swim to the island is what they call the 1916 Easter Rising when a group of Irish soldiers raise arms against the British government to demand for their nation’s independence The young lovers Jim and Doyler are sons of old time friends who together had fought in WWI Now their sons are supposed to be men who will soon be fighting for their countries as wellThe writing is typical of Irish novels It reminded me of my two attempts to read my waterloo book Ulysses by James Joyce – a book that I twice tried to read only to put it back to my tbr pile I just could not understand what it was trying to tell me However it was good that I have a friend here in GR who said that I just have to go with the flow and let the message come to me naturally I did and it worked It was like magic There were many spoken Irish and Latin terms phrases and I just ignored them Not sure if how much of the book I missed in doing that but I thought I got the gist of what the book was Overall not an easy read but a worthwhile one I learned so much about Ireland during that time and this book reminded me of my favorite Irish works like those of Joyce James in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Kellman’s Kieron Smith boy Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes oh I have to read his ’Tis and Teacher Man someday soon and even the 2000 movie Billy Elliot Ah of course Oscar Wilde was very much alive in the character of the third gay in the story McEmm who was the most interesting character in terms of being in the gray area he was neither good nor bad There are other minor gay characters like Dick and Scroties whose names remind me of the male genital parts and make their characters oh soo gayGood job for O’Neill in his successful effort to put male homosexuality in its right perspective it is neither to be flaunted nor hidden It is what it is nothing different from a man woman heterosexual love “Friend of the heart There was something surely devotional about it something might be holy even”With “At Swim Two Boys” Jamie O’Neil has written with an aching accuracy of the inklings of an emotion that one feels is forbidden This novel really examines how friends begin to feel love and then progress to the physical stage of exploring it It is a novel that will slam the reader with its human truths and depth of feeling First off this is a very Irish novel The text abounds with Irish language cadences of speech collouialisms and even historical references that might at times muddle the water for readers You will fall into the speech patterns and you can look up the historical references Don’t let that dissuade you from reading this bookThis text has an ensemble cast and I won’t rehash plot points other than to say that the cast of characters many of them very well rendered swirl around two teenage boys who are gay and coming into an understanding of that difference And all of this is set in the midst of the tumultuous years 1915 1916 in Ireland It culminates with the ill fated “Easter Uprising” of 1916I am going to briefly explore a couple of highlights for meConsider this paragraph; “Yes there was something altogether tantalizing about truth One burnt to tell it for it to be known Dreaded it too that someone else should say it their saying it making it true the truth true unalterable He thought of that phrase from Wilde “’What one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry on the housetop’ Wilde had meant in confession Was it conceivable to cry out with pride? When asked was there a flaw in his character he replied that he did not think it a flaw”Besides being awesomely written I was struck by the character who utters it MacMurrough A gay man who was imprisoned for a while for “gross indecency” O’Neil creates in this character someone exploring the idea of pride and no shame for what one is at a time when it was considered a flaw And brilliantly he does so in a manner that stays true to the time period and not told of in the language and moral thought of our own time As the character of MacMurrough develops he goes from a predatory selfish man to one who sees that his hope lies in the future that the world will be better and he can take the steps to make it so He goes so far as to aid and protect two young men despite the fact that he is in love with one of them himself At one point he realizes “And yet he could think of nothing grand than helping this boy to happiness” His efforts with these young men and making way for a better time to come is uite touching I was not expecting his character to take this routeMr O’Neil brilliantly captures that ache for human connection familial platonic romantic that we all crave At times the text stops you cold while reading Simple lines but true true true to the human heart “Yes I had known him all my life and then we met” and “But I love him I’m sure of that now And he’s my country” Lines like this just sneak into your head and heart and hold on for a whileThe novel also has humor I chuckled when a teenage boy is told in confession that masturbation is a sin His fury at the Church for waiting until he was 15 and “confirmed in this sin” to tell him is just clever Mr Mack The father of one of the novel’s protagonists also provides humorous content He is a bit of a fool but a good all around person I adored him He is the type of person who makes the world a good place despite being a flawed individualWhen I read this paragraph I was stopped by its simple truth It captures one of those things in life that make us feel complete at timesI’m just thinking that would be pleasant To be reading say out of a book and you come up and touch me my neck say or my knee and I’d carry on reading I might let a smile no wouldn’t lose my place on the page It would be pleasant to come to that We’d come so close do you see that I wouldn’t be surprised out of myself every time you touched”Goodness that is a powerful sentiment And a better one that expresses the joy and truth of a long term relationship I am not sure I have come across This novel has than a few such momentsI was involved with this book With the language with the sense of place with the lovely and painfully real characters Simply put it moved me Wow From first to last an amazing book Be sure to read the first edition; later American editions omit a difficult prefatory section written in unrelentingly difficult Irish and from the perspective of a drunkard It's not for nothing that one reviewer called O'Neill the love child of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce can you even imagine??? It's a love story multiple love stories actually set on the eve of the Easter Rebellion and as heartbreaking as anything I've ever read Promise yourself that you'll keep reading lots of people find the first fifty pages difficult it's absolutely worth it Love is love is love This is a coming of age story This is a period story a history of Ireland leading up to the Easter Rising This is a story about class religion and prejudice This is a story about gay men This is a love story on many levelsO'Neill gives us a story centered around two young men one seemingly naive and sweet the other street smart made to grow up uickly pal of each others' hearts they are These boys are dynamic and lovable but for me it is the complexity of the side characters that really had me intrigued the predator that is Brother Polycarp; the enigma of Eveline MacMurrough; the reserved shoppkeeper father and once a Dublin fusilier Mr Mack; the many shades of gray Anthony MacMurrough whom I have such sympathies for while loathing many or his actions and am still unsure of whether he may not be schizophrenic though I tend to believe it is the compartmentalization of a complicated person O'Neill's story and characters did not win me over immediately I didn't even recognize them as complicated or gray for uite a while like so many of my favorite books the story has to grow on you evolve and sneak up while your whiling away the time reading about political unrest religious fear and improprieties Grey morning dulled the bay Banks of clouds Howth just one bank rolled to sea where other Howths grumbled to greet them Swollen spumeless tide Heads that bobbed like floating gulls and gulls that floating bobbed like heads Two heads At swim two boysIt is a strange tender and imperfect love story as well as a tale about the search for belonging acceptance It is dirty and lovely but not uite a perfect read perhaps if only Doyler could just spit a little less great gobs strings of spittle sprays of it An astonishing book big and flawed and driven and filled with love and anger I can't recommend it too highly Other reviewers here have mentioned that it takes some getting into but only if you don't let the ear do part of the work of reading Listen to what O'Neill is doing with the language the music of it certainly but also the exactitude the sense it creates of a world that is both our own and not our own Fabulous And of course it examines the ways in which gay sexualityidentity is made experienced feared and finally embraced with an extraordinary precision and generosity The multi peopled interior monologues of Mc Emm as Jim calls him early in the book are a marvel of economy and ventrilouism This book is the Wuthering Heights of gay themed fiction Among the tragically sparse population of novels about same sex relationships that aren't relegated to the Gay Fiction section but are allowed to rub shoulders with the rest of the mainstream and literary fiction O'Neill's book stands as a monolith among lesser pretendersI won't lie to you it's not the easiest read ever The Irish patois is very thick and at first it's slow going but within about twenty pages I had gotten the rhythm of O'Neill's dialect and it started to make sense More than that it began to have a uality that drew me in an element of storytelling that enriched the vividness of the working class setting and served to beautifully illustrate the world in which these two boys livedThe relationship itself isn't candy coated It's harsh and rough and passionate and often impossible It's very real in a visceral gut twisting way that's sometimes uncomfortable The story is deeply rooted in the politics and atmosphere of the time; it'd be worth your while to go Wikipedia the Easter Uprising so you have an idea of what was going on in Ireland at the time Shortly after I reviewed Gay Male Fiction Since Stonewall I received a note from author Les Brookes suggesting I read At Swim Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill Scribner 2002 I took him at his word and I am ever so happy that I did This is an epic tale 576 pages that has been compared to such heavyweights as James Joyce Oscar Wilde and Flann O’Brien and arguably soThe setting is the village of Glasthule near Dublin Ireland in the year 1915 Glasthule is a uintessential Irish village that O’Neill has populated with a cast of colourful characters Jim Mack the sixteen year old ingénue unworldly to the point of being naïve; Doyler Doyle similar in age but worldly in all the ways Jim isn’t and a socialist patriot; Mr Mack Jim’s father and an inveterate social climber both for himself and his son; Eveline MacMurrough Glasthule’s local gentry and leading citizen; Anthony MacMurrough Eveline’s nephew back in Ireland after his release from an English prison for ‘gross indecency’; Mr Doyle “Himself” Doyler’s father and a veteran of the Boer War—which status he uses to illicit free drinks at the local pub; and the Catholic clergy establishment represented by Brother Polycarp a paedophilic conservative and Curate Father O’Toiler a devout Irish nationalistEach of these characters is uniue in some way well developed throughout and each represents an element of traditional Irish society Moreover O’Neill has endowed them all—especially the poorer classes—with a wonderfully uaint vernacular of Irish words and phrases; including Gaelic He then goes on to surround these with an eually lyrical narrative that captures the lilt of the Irish language to a delightful degreeAt the beginning of the story Jim is a student at the Catholic college a remarkable achievement for a lad of his modest economic background but it is only made possible by winning a scholarship While this is a most credible accomplishment on Jim’s part it also labels him a step below his wealthier classmates—a reflection of the classist based stratification of Anglo Irish society during this era As a result Jim is somewhat of a loner; feeling neither at ease with his peers nor in his father’s pretentious middleclass lifestyle That is until he serendipitously encounters the rakish Doyler Doyle a former childhood friend who has returned to Glasthule to assist his poverty stricken mother and ailing father—ie “Himself” Coming from the other side of the tracks and employed as a “shit shoveller” Doyler represents the lowest class of all on the economic scale; nevertheless he possesses a “what cheer eh?” attitude and a high level of fundamental honesty and principle—if one overlooks the occasional ‘sex for incentive’ activityLike a moth to a beacon Jim is drawn to this outgoing verbose and also affectionate rascal and together they find common ‘ground’ in swimming at “Forty Foot”; a promontory near Dublin famous for nude bathing Thus the two become dedicated to the swim such that they make a solemn pact to swim to Muglins Rock a year hence—Easter Sunday 1916—as the pinnacle of their achievement and their growing friendship Unwittingly therefore they have also laid the cornerstone of their romance which will grow apaceHere O’Neill has purposefully cut through the economic class structure of the day to find a meaningful commonality to bind the two boys together acceptably while letting their romantic love develop almost imperceptibly at the same time Interestingly for a novel written in 2002 it is a classic assimilationist approach to gay fiction; ie an idealistic love between two males ‘unblemished’ by sex The melancholy ending also reflects the unwritten pre Stonewall 1969 rule that covert or overt gay characters couldn’t be allowed an ‘happily ever after’ endingRepresenting the Irish Nationalist movement of the period O’Neill has surprisingly assigned Eveline MacMurrough and to some extent Curate Father O’Toiler—although his nationalism is firmly grounded in the interest of the Catholic Church as the national church Ergo the landscape of early 20th century Ireland is painted in shades of conflict conflict between the classes; conflict between Ireland and Britain; conflict between the Catholics and Protestants and conflict between gays and the heterosexual establishmentJim and Doyler are also caught up in these conflicts regardless of their uite innocent and as yet unconsummated love Jim’s bullying peers taunt him about his relationship with Doyler Brother Polycart is darkly jealous of Doyler’s attention toward Jim and Jim is torn between his religious belief and his growing sexual desire for Doyler—so much so that he ultimately experiences a nervous breakdown and Doyler is driven away for being a socialistRising above all this the two boys do eventually reach the apex of their loverelationship by swimming to Muglins Rock where they finally consummate their love as well However having reached the pinnacle of their relationship there is no place but down when they are caught up in the ill fated 1916 Easter uprisingThis is a powerful and yet tender coming of age tale that engages the reader with layers of emotion from the pinnacle to the depths and back again I almost uit reading this book after the first few pages It wasn't anything about the story it was the language I never expected it to be so Irish and me having never read anything by an Irish author before was thoroughly confused for the first 20 pages at least And then my brain got used to the language and I proceeded to read one of the most beautiful tragic devastating and honest books I've ever read The reason this book ended up on my favorites shelf and has lodged itself so firmly in my heart and thoughts is Jim and Doyle The relationship those two share is so profound and so wonderfully described and brought to life that I cannot help but live it with them Their friendship their love and their understanding and simple acceptance of each other is extraordinarily beautiful to me Because it is just that; simple There's nothing fake or shallow or petty about it They love each other and this book is the journey they undertake from strangers to soulmates from boys to men and it's done in such a way that I have not been able to forget it since While it might be difficult to keep reading it at times it is entirely worth it And if you're thinking about reading this please I beg you do it It is a great piece of Irish literature bringing with it insight into Irish history and Ireland itself but it's also a story about finding your place in the world being who you are and loving who you want And fighting for it all the while not losing faith in it It's a beauty of a novel I found this book to be so beautifully written It is a very moving dense yet uiet tender coming of age story of youth and friendship and love I didn't find it to be pretentious or contrite or over the top nor was it bogged down by the silly cliche plot devices that so many modern writers are using ie sex melodrama unneccessary angst gay for you menage cheatingetc I find these devices to be unimaginative insulting and lazy and they simply turn me off A good story can sell itself and that is certainly the case here This point is further proven for me in the fact that I may not have liked everything that happened plot wise or even the ending but it did not change my opinion about what a beautiful and touching story this is That's a rarity for me Please don't be dismayed by the language if you find it a bit challenging at first The story in my opinion is well worth it and you eventually become familiar with the author's voice I am not often so moved by literature though I devour it constantly but this story really did move me and I came away satisfied I reflect on this book fondly and it gives me a warm tender feeling each time


About the Author: Jamie ONeill

Jamie O'Neill is an Irish author who lived and worked in England for two decades; he now lives in Gortachalla in County Galway Ireland His critically acclaimed novel At Swim Two Boys 2001 earned him the highest advance ever paid for an Irish novel and freuent claims that he was the natural successor to James Joyce Flann O'Brien and Samuel BeckettO'Neill was born in Dún Laoghaire in 1962


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